Summer vacation is over, and the kids have strapped on their backpacks and headed back to school for what parents and teachers hope will be a fruitful year. Running down the checklist of what students need to be successful in school, we’ll find notebooks, pencils, a calculator, and . . . executive functioning?
Executive functioning has long been a predictor of academic achievement. It comes down to goal-directed behavior and includes skills like organization, time management, and planning, or OTMP. Once children reach the upper levels of elementary school – third through fifth grade – their OTMP skills will have a significant impact on how well they perform in school.
Some students have a hard time learning these skills, despite classroom support they may receive from their teachers and aides. Difficulty in acquiring these skills is often evident when students fail to record homework assignments, turn in late or incomplete assignments, misplace materials, or have trouble getting their materials ready. To address these issues, schools frequently rely on an array of accommodations – peer buddy checking a backpack, teachers checking planners, providing extra textbooks at home. But these accommodations fall short of teaching OTMP skills and fail to prepare students to become independent learners.
Howard Abikoff and Richard Gallagher, investigators from the New York University Child Study Center, previously developed the Organizational Skills Training intervention for children struggling with developing OTMP skills. The intervention was shown to be very effective in improving both children’s OTMP skills and their school performance, but it is an intensive, twice-weekly clinic-based intervention that presents challenges for many families in terms of how to implement it. In collaboration with the intervention’s developers, three Children’s Hospital investigators are now taking the intervention out of the clinic and into the elementary school classroom to see how effective it is.
Thomas Power, PhD, Jenelle Nissley-Tsiopinis, PhD, and Jennifer Mautone, PhD, from CHOP are leading the research team, which includes colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania and New York University. The researchers are conducting a five-year study of the intervention with nearly 300 students across 20 schools in the Philadelphia region.
“For many third through fifth-grade students who are struggling with OTMP skills, difficulty completing and turning in homework leads to conflict with parents and teachers, who spend an inordinate amount of time on homework, and contributes to problems with academic performance,” Dr. Nissley-Tsiopinis said.
This behavioral research, funded by the Institute of Education Sciences of the U.S. Department of Education, involves 20 sessions with selected students who are experiencing academic difficulties as a result of OTMP challenges. The intervention includes OTMP skills training for the students as well as consultation with parents and teachers after each session to reinforce the skills the students have learned.
“The program includes a focus on collaborating with parents and teachers, to ensure that students receive support from important adults in their lives as they learn to use new skills,” Dr. Mautone said.
The students taking part in the study will be randomly assigned to receive OTMP skills training or the standard of care provided in the school with the opportunity to get the OTMP intervention after the study has been completed. The investigators will later compare the results of the two groups to determine how well the OTMP training works in improving organization skills and academic performance. If the OTMP intervention makes the grade, the study team expects that it could be implemented in upper elementary schools throughout the U.S. to help students master these skills that are essential to lifelong learning.
“This research is exciting because it uses a skill building approach with students and is being conducted in schools, which will make this highly promising intervention much more accessible for the large number of students who need it,” Dr. Power said.