Executive Function and Mindfulness

Last week PTS hosted our first ever Administrators’ Retreat which introduced two amazing speakers to a group of local Special Education Administrators. The one day retreat was the kickoff to our 20th Anniversary of serving students with special needs in the Greater Philadelphia area.

The retreat began with Dr. George McCloskey, a neuropsychologist, who is an expert in the area of Executive Function.  Executive Function is a hot topic these days, and many school based therapists are being asked to work with teams to generate accommodations and to provide staff education on this area.  As an Occupational Therapist, I think this is a fantastic area for our profession to support students and teachers.  I first had the opportunity to see Dr. McCloskey speak at the Special Education conference last year in Hershey. He had a one hour time slot and it just wasn’t enough time. Everyone in the room wanted more.  Why? Because he helped make sense of the students and behaviors that we work with on a daily basis.  Three hours with Dr. McCloskey was still not enough and I’m hoping to one day be able to take one of his day long or even week-long courses.

Here are my favorite highlights from his presentation:

  • Executive Functions ARE NOT the skills of planning, organizing, prioritizing, monitoring, etc. Executive Functions ARE the brain managers that supervise the skills of planning, organizing, prioritizing, monitoring, etc.
  • Executive Functions are the bosses that tell the workers (skills) the WHAT and WHEN and then the HOW.
  • Deficits and/or dysfunction in Executive Function is a production issue, not a capability issue. There may be intact skills, but if the brain supervisors are weak then the capable workers may never be able to show the world what they are able to do.

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This information flowed right into the afternoon session of Mindfulness, which was presented by Jenny Mills of Roots and Wings, LLC.  We learned that mindfulness is being fully present and meeting each moment with kindness and curiosity.  We worked on activities that strengthen children’s awareness and attention.  My favorite highlights from Jenny’s presentation were:

  • Children understand the concept of their attention being like a flashlight that they have control over; for example, “Shine your flashlights of attention on the board”. Using that analogy to facilitate students pointing their flashlights to what we need them to be attending to really can work in a much more effective way than saying, “Pay attention,” which is really quite a vague statement.
  • Playing games such as Mime in the Mirror where two partners are working together; one partner is the Mime and without speaking moves their body into and out of various positions (example: arms flapping, swaying like a tree in the wind, etc.) and the partner, also without speaking, must follow exactly what their partner’s movements are as if they are the mirror reflection.
  • Breathing Breaks. It sounds so simple but so many of the adults in the room confessed that they don’t feel like they “breathe right,” meaning that most of us are living our lives chest breathing and never taking a full belly breath, which is so very calming and organizing for our nervous system. Practicing belly breathing by tracing a finger around a circle on a page (inhale for half the circle and exhale as you trace the second half of the circle) all while following the finger with the eyes is a fantastically quick and quiet (and effective!) calming strategy that can be used during transition times, preparation for a test, or anytime that students need to prepare to focus.

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Overall, this was an AMAZING day of learning and I know that we just scratched the surface of these two topics.  I can’t wait until the next time I can see both of these presenters again and continue exploring these two topics that are so relevant to school based therapy at this time.

For more information on Dr. McCloskey, click here.

For more information on Jenny Mills, click here.

 

Candice Donnelly-Knox, OTR/L – Director of Clinical Services at PTS, Inc.

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