- Exoskeleton: a rigid external covering for the body in some invertebrate animals, especially arthropods, providing both support and protection
We are a few weeks into the school year, which means that we’ve reached a point where some of my students have settled into a good rhythm and are doing well…and some of my students have accumulated so many missing assignments, I’m afraid they’re never going to catch up. As I watched and listened to myself walking students through Academic Support on a recent Friday, I started reflecting on how I try to model and build executive functioning skills, although I tend to think of them as just good skills for life, regardless of what any student’s education plan dictates!
And so, on that Friday, I had one student after another share their screen with me and with their peers as we walked through the same process for each. First, I asked the student to go to the middle school website, a Google site that the teachers at the middle school keep updated with assignments posted on the day they are assigned (rather than day that they are due). Starting on Monday, subject by subject, we went through the expectations for the work from that week.
In Social Studies, did you hand in your project? In math, did you go back and submit the assignment that we worked on Thursday that was locked today? And so on.
There was an interesting a-ha moment for me with a pair of twins. As we went through ELA, Social Studies, and math, yes, they had gotten all their work done. (They are coming out of six years in substantially separate classes and were often treated as though they can’t do work independently, but this is a year when they’ve decided they want to be independent; watching them grow into that has been fascinating.)
With three classes “yes,” I thought we were good to go until we got to Science. That was where they both acknowledged that they knew that they had not completed or submitted the work assigned on Tuesday. This exchange made me pause to think about why it might be that these students were honest, were able to identify their own missing work, were willing to work on it, and were happy when it was done, yet had been unable to commit to doing this short assignment on their own. Likely, if we had not taken the time to complete it in Academic Support, it would have gotten lost in the coming week and would have become a zero, yet it was really an easy assignment and also good practice. What made it feel “not-doable” to my boys? What structure were they still needing to strengthen?
The start of this school year has really brought home to me the importance of the self-discipline patterns that I’ve spent decades of my life building. These patterns have sustained me through administration changes at school, school changes in my own life, grade and content changes, etc. And I’ve leaned on them to get me through life challenges, like working Monday-Thursday through radiation treatment, even when I was experiencing cognitive distress. But with the first four weeks of chemotherapy overlaid on the first five weeks of the 2021 school year, I have had to redefine that discipline on some fronts, on days when I just don’t have the mental bandwidth to write a coherent blog post AND teach AND run a house. On those days, even the self-discipline takes a back seat to the needs of a body in treatment.
As I’ve watched myself both struggle to be consistent and also struggle to let go of my own self-expectations when unrealistic, and I watched my students struggled to identify work that they needed to complete, I’m reminded of how much my job as a middle school teacher is what I’ve always referred to as being an “external brain” for my students. This has been true throughout my entire middle school teaching career, whether I was a General Education Math teacher or an English Language teacher or a Special Education teacher. Middle school in particular is a time when students, as we know, lack a well developed prefrontal cortex and they need that external structure.
Since they don’t often have that discipline for themselves, I’ve always seen it as a priority of my job to provide it for them. What does that look like in practice? It means lots of time doing what I did on that Friday and having student after student walk him- or herself through the items on the middle school website until they could confirm both to me and to themselves that they had submitted each one. At this time in the school year, I don’t check them for quality. As time goes on, and I get to know my kids, I might get to know which students tend to turn things in too quickly or do work without paying attention to expectations, but for now, I’m just trying to get the kids into the muscle memory of completing work and submitting it for themselves.
Extra: Here’s a fascinating article on a different kind of exoskeleton, one helping disabled people gain the ability to walk again.