Brain in the Group

One thing I really appreciate about the specific type of special education that I teach is my program’s recognition that there are skills outside the general academic curriculum which still need to be explicitly taught in order for our students to truly derive benefit from “free, appropriate public education.”  Over the years, I’ve had IEP goals ranging from moving a walker ten feet to gathering one’s homework materials to peeing in the toilet no less than twice a month.

Executive functioning refers, essentially, to our internal “command and control” center–the abilities we have, or don’t have, to focus, plan, organize, and prioritize.  For many students with a wide range of disabilities, executive functioning is an area of special challenge; for my students with autism spectrum disorders, it’s an area I specifically target and explicitly teach.  Beginning, thanks to Michelle Garcia Winner, with the key concept of brain in the group.

First, we talk a lot about what a group is, extracting over time the key concept that a group consists of more than one person, coming together to do the same thing.  I show them pictures of rowing teams, cooks in a kitchen, students in their class, footballers on a football field.  I show them a picture of a giant play parachute, ask how much fun it would be for just one person to use it (not very, because the whole point of a play parachute is that you need everyone to grab the handles and shake it up and down.)  We talk about all the different times we, ourselves, are in a group, and why it’s important to be all doing the same thing.

Once I’m pretty sure that kids understand the “in the group” concept as it applies to our bodies, things get less concrete: using ideas from the book You Are a Social Detective (click above link for details), I introduce kids to the concept of keeping one’s “brain” in the group.  There’s a matching PowerPoint I’ve developed, with stock photos and thought bubbles,  showing a clear scenario and asking, “What are they thinking about?”. Basic take home message (I hit the space bar to match the bubble to the picture after I’ve gotten the right answer from the students): if you’re on the 50 yard line, you’d better think about football.


It seems so simple, so elementary–so much an assumption we can safely make about kids, that they know what to do with their brains in the classroom.  We spend so much time delivering content: we think we tell kids enough when we say, “pay attention.”   I’m every bit as guilty, often, as the teacher down the hall of feeling the exasperation–why isn’t he listening?

But one day, six hours after I did Brain in the Group with my fourth graders, I found myself at a Buddhist temple for a weekly drop-in meditation class.  Three minutes into the guided meditation, mind constantly wandering away from the breath.  Inhale…exhale… wait, what will I have for lunch tomorrow?  Inhale, exhale… what did she mean when she said that to me?  Inhale…. are we done yet?  And the monk’s voice, as I did that: “Recognize the distraction.  Breathe out.  Let it go.”

We’re all learning to keep our brains in the group.

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