Collaboration for Student EF Skills

In my early career as a school educator, I would always welcome visitors from the greater Los Angeles community, as I was eager to connect and collaborate with professionals to hear about their shared experiences, exchange knowledge, and be inspired as we connected over our experiences. I knew that I could only do my best work in supporting students with continued professional development and, more than that, really diving into learning from educational stakeholders and parent partnerships. 

With the post-pandemic recovery in Los Angeles, it has been a slow road back to anything but finding normalcy again in school. Yet, the time arrived this month when I was able to host a school learning specialist from a neighboring independent school to visit and collaborate with me one-on-one. It resembled the ‘olden days in education’ as I greeted her in the parking lot and embraced her with the biggest hug as we met in person for the first time. 

Ms. Kerry McGrath, the most cheerful and dedicated middle school learning specialist at Westside Neighborhood School, who sought to connect with me to learn about the student programs that I had created for the school as the 6th–12th grade learning specialist. These programs supported peer mentorship, especially the power for females and those in STEM or business, and more recently, concrete executive functioning skills for today’s modern learner. The “CEO” of the brain, the purpose of executive functioning, is to operate and make decisions, shift, flex, plan, remember and do. These steps together are what may impact working memory, cognitive flexibility, emotional dysregulation, and expected outcomes for the student, their teachers, and their parents. The research is clear that these skills are effective for all students, those with a learning profile and those without learning differences, as we learn how to manage our modern world. Over the last two years, during the lockdown, I piloted a school program to create space where we could attempt to scaffold support for middle school students using the evidence-based research from SMARTS-EF curriculum, a program designed to target executive functioning skills by understanding metacognition for accessible learning strategies. This is why and how the vision of My Tool Box for Success was created, and I will explain it in my first book as I begin writing this summer. Simply, students are eager to find systems that work for them, and one awe ha moment for students is when we can break down the processes into a visual illustration or create acronyms for practical tools.  One of my favorite exercises from the program was to complete an activity that highlighted using “CANDO goals” to create clear, accountable, numerical, doable, and be aware of obstacles as one moves into authentic action when mapping out their goals. This is a simple concept that I have used to explain to parents for years; the ABCs of EF skills are (1) planning, (2) remembering, and (3) completing a task to fulfill student learning outcomes. Often, parents acknowledge that they have had EF challenges in their own experiences, too. When I share the program with them, it all comes together and makes more sense for the whole family as to why many skills are required to accomplish and complete one task (i.e., the goal). 

Our passion for advocating, educating, and supporting our students, teachers, and parents brought our energy together to focus on what our learning communities need from us. We had plans for lunch, but there was no time for eating as we began to exchange ideas, educational concepts, and modern-day strategies for diverse middle school students in a modern digital era. 

Our conversations were contagious; we discussed what the student needs in their current learning environment, what teachers might need to provide access for all learners, and how we can use new concepts to illustrate learning accommodations in school and support, especially for neurodiverse learners. As we took notes, we laughed, asked challenging questions, and found ourselves in a “think-tank mindset” that felt like graduate school again, with ideas leading to solutions. 

Everyone today has an agenda, the school or college, us parents, and the student, but an individual’s growth and trajectory toward learning does not have an agenda item. Thinking about our students and what skills they need to develop and practice before they leave for college begins in middle school. The foundational skills require creativity and thoughtfulness in our approach. We quickly forget that learning does not happen organically in this way. I was grateful for Ms. McGrath’s visit as she gave me a gift that day, reminding me of the power of mentorship and connection, working towards a vision that when we come together, learning and creating to bring value to others’ lives is the cornerstone of what we do as educational thought leaders and teachers. 

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