Although I work with a team of SLP who work with clients with the goal of  developing various types of communication skills, my experience is with the group that are labeled "the nuance challenged social communicators." This means the clients I am most familiar with are not verbally challenged; in fact they are often quite verbally gifted. Instead they are communication challenged - experiencing difficulty with the social cognitive and executive function aspects of communication. This means that although I find the chapters we have read about designing and implementing Augmentative Communication systems interesting, I have had to work to find personal relevance in them. So when I saw the title of this chapter, I must admit my first thought was, “another chapter of AC?”

However, as I read down the list of focus questions at the beginning of the chapter my eye was immediately drawn to this one, “What strategies can teachers use to overcome learned helplessness?” Now that IS interesting to me. So while I do think AC is important, and I did read the entire chapter, I am going to focus my response on this one question as the subject that is most related to my profession as an Executive Function Thinking Coach.

The concept of “learned helplessness” is one I have given much thought to over the last few years. Initially I became interested in learning more about the concept when I would hear people question whether giving students with disabilities “too much” support would create a state of “learned helplessness” in the students. Using learned helplessness in this context was so incorrect; it was what Wolfgang Pauli would call, ‘not even wrong’.  For, “learned helplessness” does not mean “learning to act helpless so someone else will solve your problems,” but rather “failing so often that one loses hope, or learns that they are helpless.” This is the state that a person reaches only when they have suffered from a lack of adequate support over time, not a description of someone who has been enabled or made co-dependent by too much support.

Unfortunately it is exactly this state of believing they have no control over the situation that many of our nuance challenged social thinker’s experience. Due to their social cognitive deficits and/or weak executive function thinking abilities they often find themselves in situations where they are unable to generate a correct response to the situation. Thus they find themselves failing to be successful in communication, or in producing the type of responses that the situation demands whether these be academic or personal.

For this reason, as I saw the bullet list "Tips for Overcoming Learned Helplessness" ( page 290) in terms of working with students who were being given an AC system for the first time, I decided to try to translate the information into an Executive Function Thinking Framework.

This is what I came up with:

·         Build a daily expectation of Executive Function Thinking through specific activities:

           o    Making a future sketch of a specific goal

           o    Making a step-by-step plan to accomplish a
                 specific goal

           o    Practice situational awareness in order to make 
                  “smart guesses” about what will happen next, 
                  and what is expected.

            o    Use rubrics to monitor successful implementation/
                  outcomes of a plan

·         Construct a brief daily report for the parent that is communicated by the students with the goal of sharing one or two effective Executive Function Thinking strategies used successfully that day.

·         Allow for natural consequences to occur, and provide coaching for determining what worked and what did not work. Help the student create a plan for repairing the situation. This includes creating setups that alter the environment to provide more support when necessary.

·         Provide opportunities whenever possible that require students to engage their Executive Function Thinking skills in real life decision making.

           o    Use declarative language to invite students to
                 become problem solvers rather than imperative
                 commands that simply require compliance.

·         Provide opportunities for students to use their Executive Function Thinking skills to achieve personally motivating  goals, not merely to complete assignments given to them by others.

This last tip is one that is particularly dear to me, reflecting my deep belief is that in order for our students with weak executive function thinking skills to be willing to embrace the difficult work of developing their area of weakness, they need to have a deep trust that they can use these Executive Function Thinking skills to make their life more enjoyable to themselves not merely to make themselves more enjoyable to others.


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