“There is hope for all learners”: An interview with Paula Moraine on helping students take control of everyday functions

Paula Moraine, M.Ed. is Director of the Community Outreach Center for Literacy and Tutoring Program at The Highland School in Bel Air, Maryland, USA. She has also worked as a classroom teacher and a teacher training instructor, has taught academic courses on education at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, UK, and was Editor of the Journal for Curative Education for five years.

In this interview, Paula talks about her new book, Helping Students Take Control of Everyday Executive Functions, and how, by understanding a student’s own way of learning, teachers and parents can help them succeed in and out of school, regardless of their skill or ability level.


How did you come to specialize in working with children with executive function difficulties, and what made you decide to write a book about it?

I have been a teacher and an educator my whole life. Teaching is natural for me and I enjoy teaching students of all ages. I taught teachers in teacher training settings for many years, and I tried to share what it meant to have an intuitive understanding of the students’ needs. It was always clear to me that every student learned differently, and I could see that every teacher taught out of their personal set of strengths and weaknesses. But my big question was: “Why?” My other big question was: “How can I communicate this with words?”

I have taught the whole gamut from special needs students to very gifted students, from the youngest students to adults. There was a “red thread” connecting all these experiences that did not have to do with the students’ ability level. Gradually, I realized that this thread was the individual’s executive function, the “how they learn” aspect of education. So I turned my attention to executive function, or EF as I call it, and a whole world of insight opened up for me. It no longer mattered what level of intelligence or skill the student had; if I could understand how their EF worked, then I could do something to help them become the best they could be.

The inspiration to write the book came from the students and their parents as much as it did from me. I wanted to make these ideas available, and I wanted to put these ideas into an objective format. The parents and students kept telling me that I needed to write a book, so as a kind of “thank you” gift to my students I decided to make this book available to anyone who was interested in how to strengthen their executive functions.

In the book, you advocate a salutogenic approach to teaching executive function skills, and say that skills should be built upon “from the inside out”. Can you tell us a bit more about this approach – what makes it unique, and why can it be so successful?

Salutogenesis, a word that literally means “the origin of health”, is based on the concept of coherence, which for me is another way of saying “integrated”. The three areas that make up the experience of coherence are comprehensibility, meaningfulness, and manageability, and these can also be understood as our thinking, our feeling, and our actions or will. It is not a good idea to try to force change on another person, or to try to make them think, feel, or act out of demand or requirement. There is nothing more personal, individual, and sacred than how a person thinks, feels, and acts. Yet, as a teacher I am asked to bring about learning and change in the student. So the real question in education becomes: “How can we bring about learning and change in such a way that it happens internally, through the student’s own will?” It caused me pain when I saw teachers forcing, requiring, coercing, or demanding actions from their students. For myself, words that became fundamental in my teaching were lead, guide, inspire, and provide. This is what led me to the ideas that are foundational to the idea of salutogenesis; I wanted to be the kind of teacher who could make learning comprehensible, meaningful, and manageable.

How does the book reflect your general philosophy about teaching?

This book reflects my general philosophy about teaching in every way. I wanted to communicate that there is hope for all learners, that everyone can find a way to learn that is personal and successful. I wanted to share how to translate what a student is saying not just by listening to their words, but by listening to the essence of who they are as a learner. This is not something that can be communicated simply, and it is not a way of being that comes naturally to all teachers. But many teachers will understand that it is an attitude, a kind of “life-gesture” that makes this kind of listening in teaching possible. Teaching is generally considered an activity that one does “to” another. I think of teaching as something that I do “for” that other person. The learning is theirs, the experience of change is theirs, and for me the main thrill is when that student starts finding his or her “voice”.

Can you describe how you hope people will use it?

I hope people will read through this book and think: “I can do this! This makes sense and it is something that will help me, too.” Learning how to use our executive functions is a life-long task. Just because we might have arrived at that magic third decade when the part of our brain that directs executive function is mature, it doesn’t mean we also have the necessary skills and experience to use our executive brain perfectly. Any effort we make toward trying to understand someone else’s experience of executive function will help us toward better understanding our own. For me, it is more important that the reader has an opportunity to think about an aspect of learning that might not have been so clear before reading the book. I hope it is read creatively and individually – no two people need to read this book exactly the same way. I hope readers take what they need, and use what makes sense in their own experience.

If you could give teachers just one “golden rule” for promoting executive function skills in their students, what would it be?

If you follow the “Golden Rules”, you will give the students their voice. These rules transcend all educational approaches and educational systems. It doesn’t matter if you are in a private or public sector of education, and it doesn’t matter if you are a teacher or a parent. These “Golden Rules” will allow you to help the student replace fear and anxiety with hope and confidence. This approach still calls for hard work, but the goal of strengthening executive function becomes more attainable and available for everyone. This is why the ingredients are so important, since you can take them and find relevance in them for everyone.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

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