#222 – Executive Function and the Support of Students’ Thinking Brains, with Allison Morgan

Unpacking Education September 27, 2023 50 min

In this episode, we are again joined by Allison Morgan, the founder and CEO of Zensational Kids. Throughout our discussion, Allison covers a variety of subjects, ranging from an explanation of executive function skills to how they impact student learning and how teachers can leverage this understanding to support students in the classroom.

Read a transcript of this episode.

Paul Beckermann
PreK–12 Digital Learning Specialist
Rena Clark
STEM Facilitator and Digital Learning Specialist
Dr. Winston Benjamin
Social Studies and English Language Arts Facilitator

Executive function strategies help students to go beyond the content that is being taught, so that learning is process-based rather than only outcome-based.

Dr. Lynn Meltzer, from her book, Promoting Executive Function in the Classroom


The following resources are available from AVID and on AVID Open Access to explore related topics in more depth:

“What Would Love Say Here?”

Our guest, Allison Morgan, acknowledges that, “Things can be just so hard in classrooms for teachers.” When things get tough, she believes that kindness and compassion can be “your saving grace.” In the midst of difficult situations, she encourages us to ask two questions: “What would love do here?” and “What would love say here?” This approach can remind us that students are coming to us with different levels of skill in self-regulation and executive function. They also come to us with stressors from trauma, ADHD, and complex personal lives.

Tune in to this episode to discover insights and strategies that can benefit both you and your students. The following are a few highlights:

  • About Our Guest: Allison Morgan has been working in education for over 25 years. She is an occupational therapist and the CEO of Zensational Kids.
  • Executive Functions: Allison describes these skills as “higher thinking skills.” They include working memory, behavior control, cognitive flexibility, and organizational skills.
  • Working Memory: ”It’s your ability to take in information and retain it, and like I said before, manipulate it in order to perform a task or solve a problem,” describes Allison. She goes on to explain, “It’s like a folder.” Students learn something and put it into the appropriate knowledge folder. “In order to complete the assignment, you need to open up the folder and look at all that information—that content that you had—and how could you use that to complete the assignment.”
  • Behavior Control: This executive function skill is about self-regulation, the ability to monitor internal and external environments and base behavior on what is necessary in order to interact with the task at hand.
  • Cognitive Flexibility: Allison describes this skill as “being able to switch tasks.” For example, middle school students need to learn to switch classrooms, subject matter, and teachers rather than staying in one classroom for an entire day as they may have done during elementary grades.
  • Organizational Skills: This skill set includes the ability to organize, prioritize, plan, problem-solve, and manage time.
  • A Developmental Process: Students are not born with fully functioning executive function skills. It takes time for students to develop these. In fact, Allison says that some of this development may not be complete until the late twenties. She adds, “There’s a reason why a 16-year-old does not make the best decisions in certain areas, right? Their executive function skills in terms of decision-making [are] not fully developed.”
  • Intelligence: Having a lack of control over executive functions is not a sign that a student is unintelligent. Rather, Allison explains, “Sometimes, there are kids [who] are really lacking certain parts of executive function skills more than others, yet they’re very intelligent. They’re so smart. And it becomes a battle, and it becomes so frustrating for teachers.” These students need help developing the executive function skills that can help them to better access and use their intelligence.
  • One or the Other: When students are “in a state of high anxiety, high stress, fear, overwhelmed, worried, the emotional centers of our brain kick in,” says Allison. This tells the brain to react as if it’s in danger, causing the fight, flight, or freeze reactions to be triggered in the back of the brain. This, in turn, shuts off the executive function portion in the frontal lobe of the brain. “They cannot both be on at the same time,” explains Allison.
  • Start With Environment: Allison says that the best way to help students effectively access executive functions is to “create an environment that is conducive for that prefrontal cortex to turn on.” Educators should make sure that students feel like they belong and are accepted as their authentic selves.
  • Academic Supports: Beyond creating a positive environment, educators can help students develop executive function skills by scaffolding complex tasks, chunking assignments, using visual supports, and implementing checklists.
  • Good for All: While creating a safe space and supporting students can be very helpful to students who have experienced trauma or have been diagnosed with ADHD, this approach will essentially help all students in a classroom. What is good for students struggling with executive function is good for all students.
  • Regulation First: “Fundamental is regulation, regulation, regulation, regulation,” says Allison. During our conversation, she cites the work of Dr. Bruce Perry, who argues that before students can reason and work at high academic levels, they must first regulate themselves and then relate to the teacher and others in the classroom. This recipe of regulate, relate, and then reason can help guide educators in helping students better access executive function skills.

Guiding Questions

If you are listening to the podcast with your instructional team or would like to explore this topic more deeply, here are guiding questions to prompt your reflection:

  • What are four key aspects of executive function?
  • What struggles have you observed in students with regard to executive functioning?
  • How can you build a safe classroom environment where students feel accepted?
  • What does this question mean to you: “What would love do here?”
  • Why is it important to help students regulate themselves?

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