Monday, December 22, 2014

Executive Function Part 2: Tools to Support Choice Making & Self-Regulation

In Part 1 of this series on executive function I wrote about how to organize shelving to help children make choices and how to demonstrate choice making.  In this post we will talk about tools that support choice making at school and at home.

When you work in schools, whether the children know you well or not, they will tell you things that are important to them.  As you kneel by a table to watch children playing with counting cubes it is not unusual to have someone turn to you and say something like "I have a dog." or "It is my brother's birthday." Recently I was walking with some children to the cafeteria and a boy whispered to me with a great sense of pride, "I am the table wiper. That is my job."

In my house we had a job chart on the refrigerator.  List of kids names down one side, jobs across the top.  The jobs changed each week.  Instilling personal responsibility through meaningful activity gives children the chance to internalize motor planning skills and experience confidence.  Sarah Ward notes that adding "er" to a verb can help children to visualize themselves doing that activity. Instead of "Wipe off the table." you could say, "You are the table wiper." or "We need a table wiper today."

An important aspect of executive function skills is the ability to make decisions and engage in purposeful, meaningful work. This helps children organize their thinking and develop self-control and confidence.

However, opportunities for children to engage in self-directed activity can be scarce. What opportunities do children have to make choices that involve decision making, accompanied by important motor planning experiences such as carrying materials, making choices from shelves  - and not simply have things put on tables for them? 

Think buffet, not full service restaurant.

But before we choose our entrees or get started on our jobs we have some things to do.

Asking children to choose and engage in activities without first demonstrating how to handle materials and clean up can result in a chaotic atmosphere at home and at school. Play the "Clean Up Game" to model.  Have the children watch you take out several materials. Put them on tables or on mats on the floor or the rug.  Ask children to watch carefully to see if they can remember where you got things. (At home, emptying the dish drainer or dish washer is a great activity.) Then ask for volunteers to put things back. Demonstrate how to carry trays, tubs, chairs, etc.  Show children how to handle materials carefully whether it is a small laundry basket at home or a tub of blocks at school. (Have small children put their thumbs on top of the edges of a tub or tray or plate when they carry things for stability).

Responsive Classroom techniques use Guided Discovery Elements to introduce everything from water color paints, to dictionaries, to crayons, to the scale in the video: 
  • Introduction, Naming, & Care of Materials
  • Generating and Modeling Ideas
  • Exploration
  • Sharing of Work
See You Tube for examples of this process - Guided Discovery of a Balance. Notice that the teacher is on the floor with the children.  I think this lesson is actually a little long and requires too much wait time for most children, but the elements are there.

Montessori teachers also do very thorough large and small group presentations of materials from dollhouses to specific didactic materials and You Tube has some examples as well.

To learn more about executive function see The Art of Control, a great resource for classroom and home ideas.

Now for the buffet - Choice Boards are one way to help children make choices once they have finished a center or required activity, or can be used for your free choice time to help children put closure on play and make decisions about what to do next.

There are lots of different versions of these.  Sometimes the "boards" are in the actual areas of the room where children "sign in and out" of a playspace by putting a card or tag with their name on it on the board near the area.  No more spaces on the board means that area is full. Here are some Choice Boards from a very quick Pinterest surf.

Healey Head Start
This choice board uses pictures of children and Velcro backing for photos and for the actual activity cards. Notice that there are a potential of 4 spaces at each center but some are covered with a black square indicating that fewer children can go to that activity.  Also note that there are really three types of choices here:

1. Static areas, such as "blocks" or "easel"
2. Discrete activity  at a table such as "magnets",
3. Dynamic area that has many choices within it such as "writing center" or "math shelf" or "art area".  These last type of choices give children practice making decisions about what they  might want to do within a particular content area.

The choice board below is painted homosote (really inexpensive from the hardware store), small cup hooks, and paper key tags for children's names. Each card represents an activity of one of the three types mentioned above.

Important is that when a child finishes one activity and cleans it up (or at least prepares the  materials for the next person in some way), they must return to the board before going to the next activity.  For many children this is an exercise in self-regulation.  It forces them to think:  "Am I finished?"  "What must I do to make this area ready for my friends?"  "What do I want to do next and how will I get there?" 

Small key tags with children's names on them
are moved from hook to hook by children as they
decide what to do next.
Child Study and Development Center, UNH
Like everything else, the choice boards also need a full introduction and modeling.  But the resulting self-regulation will be worth it.  I also advocate for having children approach the choice board by "child" not by "activity".  So I never say, "Who wants to go to blocks today?" That simply puts me in the position of choosing for children and creates overt competition.  Instead I ask, "Who thinks they know a few things they might want to choose today?  Remember if an area is full when I call you, make a different choice and you can change choices when there is space."  The children's pictures or key tags are on a small mat in front of the choice board and children are called to make their choice.
Think about how you  might want to start off the new year with a job chart or a choice board and help children become "builders", "sweepers", "dishwasher emptiers" "counters" and "readers".
Happy New Year and more posts in January!