Executive Functioning Workshop with Peg Dawson

Executive Functioning Workshop with Peg Dawson

Katie Puszynski, Peg Dawson, Donna Torf, and Dr. Sally Sover

Over a two-day visit to Cove School, January 12 and 13, Dr. Peg Dawson, well-regarded researcher, clinician and author on the subject of Executive Functioning, shared her wisdom with our parents, staff and the greater Cove community. Dr. Dawson, Director of Center for Learning and Attention Disorders, has co-authored a number of books, articles, strategies and materials on EF with her collaborator Dr. Richard Guare. Their publications are valuable resources for professionals and parents looking to support children with EF challenges, and for adults who struggle with their own such difficulties.

Click here to listen to audio recording of parent presentation.

Executive Director, Dr. Sally Sover, invited Dr. Dawson to be our key consultant for Cove’s initiative to bring a deeper understanding and best practices into our pedagogy in support of executive skill development.

Executive Functioning is the term applied to brain-based skills that allow a person to “execute” tasks. They support success in school, at work and in the social arena.  These are the skills that allow us to become capable, effective, resourceful, self-actualized beings.

EF skills are governed by the frontal lobe of the brain, that part of the brain roughly behind the forehead.  Since brain maturity proceeds from back-to-front, the frontal lobe is last to develop fully.  In fact, the frontal lobe takes about 25 years to mature.  Thus, while some executive skills begin to emerge as early as six month of age, it isn’t until a person is in his/her mid-twenties that the full complement of executive functioning skills is developed.  

That timeframe describes neurotypical development.  For persons with learning disabilities, however, executive functioning skills may take significantly longer to emerge and mature, and some skills may even remain lifelong challenges.

Weak executive functioning skills present an overarching hurdle for many students at Cove School.  For all the effort a student puts forth to improve literacy and math skills, dysfunctional executive skills may impede classroom performance and success.  For example, a student learning complex math may struggle with task initiation or impulse control, resulting in poorly executed classwork or homework, affecting their progress. A student who is inflexible or cannot sustain attention may struggle to follow a guided discussion aimed at deepening comprehension of a textual passage. A multi-step science project or math calculation may prove too challenging for a student who with weak working memory, organization, goal-directed persistence, time management or metacognitive skills.

Cove’s focus on executive functioning started this fall with events that laid groundwork for Dr. Dawson’s January visits.  In October, Cove SLP Donna Torf and OT Katie Puszynski presented an overview of executive  skills to the entire staff.  In September and November, Clinical Director Dr. Robin Johnstone and Donna Torf co-facilitated two of three parent “book club” meetings to discuss Dawson’s co-authored books, Smart but Scattered and Smart but Scattered Teen. (The third and final such meeting is scheduled for February 13.) These events introduced staff and parents to the model for Executive Functioning developed by Dr. Dawson and her collaborator and co-author Dr. Richard Guare.

Dr. Dawson’s visit to Cove School began on Thursday afternoon with a series of classroom observations. She reported that her most outstanding impressions were: 1) that all adult-to-student interactions were “positives” (rather than “correctives” or admonishing, negative feedback); and, 2) that all students and teachers were fully engaged in learning activities.  Given this context, she suggested that embedding executive functioning strategies right within the curricular instruction could be both workable and successful.

That evening she presented a program to parents of Cove students and others from around the community. And the next day, she presented a full-day professional development program for all of the Cove staff plus nearly 100 other area teachers, clinicians and administrators.

We learned that Dr. Dawson and Dr. Guare’s EF model was framed by two questions: What are the skills most critical for school success? And, how can those skills be defined in a crystal clear manner that points directly toward intervention strategies? Through their explorations, they derived this model of eleven key skills, the definitions for which signaled the bases for interventions.

Executive Functioning Skill

Intervention Strategy

Response Inhibition

“Stop and Wait”

Working Memory

“How did you handle that last time?”

Emotional Control



Set the adult’s agenda before the child sets his own.

Sustained Attention

Gradually extend the amount of time on a task from the baseline duration.

Task Initiation

Help the child state the start time and to start then.


Provide an explicit “roadmap” for a long-term project


Establish a simple system that can be sustained over a long time.

Time management

Eliminate that “one more thing”

Goal-directed persistence

Teach this skill via an activity that is highly motivating to the child


“What did I do + Why did I do it = What I will do next time”

A most engaging speaker, Dr. Dawson peppered her presentation of the science of executive functioning with comics, anecdotes, examples, intervention suggestions, and even her own experiences with skills along the EF spectrum.  Her research and insights led her to these main messages about executive functioning:   

  1. Executive skills take 25 years to develop fully because, as brain-based skills,  that is how long it takes the frontal lobe, where these skills reside, to mature.  
  2. While a child’s executive skills remain immature or weak, we adults must be “surrogate frontal lobes” for our children. This means that we provide the checklists, the timers, the feedback, the reward plans, the prompts, the organizing systems, the visuals and the metacognitive scaffolding for children who need them, and for as long as they are needed.
  3. Two nerve cell activities -- myelinization and pruning -- provide brain-based evidence for the value of explicit teaching and practice of specific executive skills.  In particular, adolescence is a key developmental period for direct intervention and habituation of functional skills.  Practice changes the brain structure, which fosters skill development.  When parents and teachers expect more than a child’s EF development allows, frustration and a sense of “failure” set in.  But, this can be turned around if we modify environments, expectations and the ways we engage our children.  Teaching the child about EF targets, modeling the skills and helping him take ownership of the effort will likely reap a more satisfying result than badgering, fault-finding or giving up.

The good news, according to Dr. Dawson, is that gradually, with mindful and patient adult modeling and intervention, as targeted habits are incrementally shaped and established, and as the brain matures, children who are daunted by executive functioning obstacles tend to grow into adults who are more independent, strategic and successful than their parents or teachers might have predicted early on.