A speech and language pathologist by training, Heather Ironside has been Gateway’s Director of Language and Literacy since 2016. She is responsible for the professional development program, the Reading and Writing curriculum, language therapy, and student assessments. We spoke to Heather about executive function, which is one of the main targets of remediation at Gateway.
Q: In a nutshell, what is executive function?
A: Executive function is an umbrella term for the processes of decision-making and planning. It is divided into thinking skills for planning, organizing, sustaining attention, and finishing a task; and regulation of our behavior and emotions. It is the “boss of your brain.”
Q: How does Gateway remediate impairments in executive function?
A: We address it in many ways. For example, the Aim and Agenda, stated at the beginning of every lesson, teaches students how to organize and structure themselves. It helps them stay on task and think about what they’re learning. In Lower School, if students are doing a task, the steps are laid out for them explicitly, and they’re taught to go through each step. We scaffold the strategies they use. In addition, the Zones of Regulation program teaches them to manage their reactions and emotions. In Middle School, we have additional systems in place. Their trapper keepers are organized in a precise way. Their homework has checklists for monitoring quality. And they’re taught to use study skills and study guides.
Q: When does executive function NOT come into play?
A: When something is practiced, routine, and automatic—for example, if you have the same commute every day and nothing changes, you might reach home and find yourself asking, “How did I get here?”
Q: How is executive function related to language?
A: They are extremely related. Your planning and decision-making are mediated through language—think of it as talking to yourself. Conversely, talking, reading, and writing are never automatic; they require executive function skills.