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May 3, 2017

Strategies to Build Executive Functioning Skills, Part 1

By John DePasquale
Grades 3–5, 6–8

    According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, skills related to executive functioning involve the “mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.” Children develop and use a variety of executive functioning skills from a very young age as they start to learn about and navigate their world. While these skills emerge in childhood, they mature and evolve throughout our lives.

    Children and adults also learn the important mental processes related to executive functioning from prior experiences of success or failure. For me, countless experiences of aimlessly wandering the aisles of a grocery store unable to remember why I entered the store in the first place cause me to know that I cannot successfully shop for food without first making a list. A basic shopping list is an executive functioning strategy I learned to use as a result of far too many failed trips to the grocery store.  

    Whether you’re a seasoned veteran or a first-year teacher, you likely have encountered a student in your class who struggles with executive functioning. From the student who frequently forgets multistep instructions halfway through an activity to one who always seems to misplace materials and important assignments, the signs of these struggles may be obvious to some teachers. From my experience, a cluttered backpack or workspace overflowing with papers is a telltale sign a student may struggle with certain skills related to executive functioning.

    For other students, however, the signs of executive functioning challenges are more subtle and can easily be overlooked or ignored. These students might be accused of not listening to directions, being forgetful, or simply dismissed as lazy. Struggles with executive functioning can be seen at any age, but they may become more pronounced as students enter middle school and the demands of school become increasingly more complex. At this point, some older students may realize they haven’t developed certain skills they need in order to manage these increasing demands. As a middle school teacher, I think it is especially important to recognize and appropriately respond to students who struggle with executive functioning skills.

    As our students’ executive functioning skills broaden through their experiences, we can support them through strong teaching and consistent modeling to provide them with various strategies to call upon when they experience inevitable challenges. This may seem daunting because skills related to executive functioning include a number of behavioral and mental processes, however there are broad categories related to learning we can best support in the classroom. Three of these broad categories include:

    ·      Organization and Prioritization

    ·      Working Memory

    ·      Self-Monitoring

    This two-part post is meant to provide you with practical tips to help you support students in each of these essential skills. In Part One I address organization and prioritization. Please take a look at Part Two for tips and strategies to help your students with Working Memory and Self-Monitoring skills.

    Organization and Prioritization

    Organization and prioritization include the skills students use to prepare for a task and to set reasonable goals that enable them to successfully complete it. From gathering all of the necessary materials to deciding where to focus their time and attention, students are expected to plan and prioritize for nearly every academic undertaking they in encounter. However, students who struggle with organization and prioritization typically have a difficult time planning, initiating and finishing classroom tasks. These challenges are compounded when students are faced with long-term class projects and other tasks that require multiple steps.

    Here are tips to help students organize and prioritize:

    ·      Devote time to organize. Learning organization takes time and practice. I carve out time in my classroom twice a week to focus solely on organization. Monday mornings and Friday afternoons are the perfect moments for me to pause with my students to organize. I distribute as many materials as I am able on Mondays, and the students place them in their notebooks and folders for the week. Friday afternoons are reserved for clearing out both the materials that are no longer needed and the invariable “stuff” that always seems to accumulate in my students’ backpacks. Carving out these moments in our otherwise busy week teach students that organizational skills require continual time and practice to develop.

    ·      Store it in the clouds. As an experiment this school year, I taught five students who struggle the most with organization to move and store their work on the digital cloud. The students use school email accounts to access their files on Google Drive. The students, all of their teachers, and families are linked to these accounts. The initial results of this experiment have been positive. It has significantly reduced the number of misplaced assignments and removed clutter from backpacks. 

    ·      Maintain an organized classroom. Students who struggle with organization benefit from working in a well-organized classroom environment. Common materials used should be easily accessible and labeled for students. Since I know it’s not always easy to maintain a well-organized classroom, my next tip offers a solution.

    ·      Deputize the organized. Just as there are students who struggle to stay organized, there are also students who love to organize things. I put these organized kids to work. I deputize the organized, issue them a labeling supplies, and authorize their patrol of classroom materials. These deputies keep vigilant watch over our storage bins; always on the lookout for a misplaced book or a wayward pencil that somehow ended up in a bucket of markers. This is a win-win strategy — the classroom stays organized and student organizers love to help.    

    ·      Use checklists. Checklists are another great strategy to help students prepare for a task and to set goals to complete it. I encourage students to list the steps they need to take to complete a project — especially long-term projects — on a checklist. For tasks that can be completed in any order, I ask students to prioritize tasks in a way that makes sense to them. Some students prefer to complete more challenging tasks first, while others prefer to start with easier tasks. With help, students can adopt a style that matches their preference. For an added level of support, students include suggested timings for items on the checklist to build awareness of how long each task should take them to complete. A word of caution about checklists, make sure the goals students set are reasonable and attainable. If a student is not able to check off items on the list after an appropriate amount of time, they become overwhelmed and the checklist becomes a visual reminder of their failure. For a template of a checklist I use with students, I encourage you to click on this link or the image below and print it out!

    ·      Keep it simple. My final suggestion to help students learn to be organized is to keep it simple. I try to remember the rule of three and keep multistep directions to a simple three. Also, for long-term projects that require more steps, I try to divide the project into smaller, more manageable components.

    Check out Part 2 for more tips on Working Memory and Self-Monitoring.

    According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, skills related to executive functioning involve the “mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.” Children develop and use a variety of executive functioning skills from a very young age as they start to learn about and navigate their world. While these skills emerge in childhood, they mature and evolve throughout our lives.

    Children and adults also learn the important mental processes related to executive functioning from prior experiences of success or failure. For me, countless experiences of aimlessly wandering the aisles of a grocery store unable to remember why I entered the store in the first place cause me to know that I cannot successfully shop for food without first making a list. A basic shopping list is an executive functioning strategy I learned to use as a result of far too many failed trips to the grocery store.  

    Whether you’re a seasoned veteran or a first-year teacher, you likely have encountered a student in your class who struggles with executive functioning. From the student who frequently forgets multistep instructions halfway through an activity to one who always seems to misplace materials and important assignments, the signs of these struggles may be obvious to some teachers. From my experience, a cluttered backpack or workspace overflowing with papers is a telltale sign a student may struggle with certain skills related to executive functioning.

    For other students, however, the signs of executive functioning challenges are more subtle and can easily be overlooked or ignored. These students might be accused of not listening to directions, being forgetful, or simply dismissed as lazy. Struggles with executive functioning can be seen at any age, but they may become more pronounced as students enter middle school and the demands of school become increasingly more complex. At this point, some older students may realize they haven’t developed certain skills they need in order to manage these increasing demands. As a middle school teacher, I think it is especially important to recognize and appropriately respond to students who struggle with executive functioning skills.

    As our students’ executive functioning skills broaden through their experiences, we can support them through strong teaching and consistent modeling to provide them with various strategies to call upon when they experience inevitable challenges. This may seem daunting because skills related to executive functioning include a number of behavioral and mental processes, however there are broad categories related to learning we can best support in the classroom. Three of these broad categories include:

    ·      Organization and Prioritization

    ·      Working Memory

    ·      Self-Monitoring

    This two-part post is meant to provide you with practical tips to help you support students in each of these essential skills. In Part One I address organization and prioritization. Please take a look at Part Two for tips and strategies to help your students with Working Memory and Self-Monitoring skills.

    Organization and Prioritization

    Organization and prioritization include the skills students use to prepare for a task and to set reasonable goals that enable them to successfully complete it. From gathering all of the necessary materials to deciding where to focus their time and attention, students are expected to plan and prioritize for nearly every academic undertaking they in encounter. However, students who struggle with organization and prioritization typically have a difficult time planning, initiating and finishing classroom tasks. These challenges are compounded when students are faced with long-term class projects and other tasks that require multiple steps.

    Here are tips to help students organize and prioritize:

    ·      Devote time to organize. Learning organization takes time and practice. I carve out time in my classroom twice a week to focus solely on organization. Monday mornings and Friday afternoons are the perfect moments for me to pause with my students to organize. I distribute as many materials as I am able on Mondays, and the students place them in their notebooks and folders for the week. Friday afternoons are reserved for clearing out both the materials that are no longer needed and the invariable “stuff” that always seems to accumulate in my students’ backpacks. Carving out these moments in our otherwise busy week teach students that organizational skills require continual time and practice to develop.

    ·      Store it in the clouds. As an experiment this school year, I taught five students who struggle the most with organization to move and store their work on the digital cloud. The students use school email accounts to access their files on Google Drive. The students, all of their teachers, and families are linked to these accounts. The initial results of this experiment have been positive. It has significantly reduced the number of misplaced assignments and removed clutter from backpacks. 

    ·      Maintain an organized classroom. Students who struggle with organization benefit from working in a well-organized classroom environment. Common materials used should be easily accessible and labeled for students. Since I know it’s not always easy to maintain a well-organized classroom, my next tip offers a solution.

    ·      Deputize the organized. Just as there are students who struggle to stay organized, there are also students who love to organize things. I put these organized kids to work. I deputize the organized, issue them a labeling supplies, and authorize their patrol of classroom materials. These deputies keep vigilant watch over our storage bins; always on the lookout for a misplaced book or a wayward pencil that somehow ended up in a bucket of markers. This is a win-win strategy — the classroom stays organized and student organizers love to help.    

    ·      Use checklists. Checklists are another great strategy to help students prepare for a task and to set goals to complete it. I encourage students to list the steps they need to take to complete a project — especially long-term projects — on a checklist. For tasks that can be completed in any order, I ask students to prioritize tasks in a way that makes sense to them. Some students prefer to complete more challenging tasks first, while others prefer to start with easier tasks. With help, students can adopt a style that matches their preference. For an added level of support, students include suggested timings for items on the checklist to build awareness of how long each task should take them to complete. A word of caution about checklists, make sure the goals students set are reasonable and attainable. If a student is not able to check off items on the list after an appropriate amount of time, they become overwhelmed and the checklist becomes a visual reminder of their failure. For a template of a checklist I use with students, I encourage you to click on this link or the image below and print it out!

    ·      Keep it simple. My final suggestion to help students learn to be organized is to keep it simple. I try to remember the rule of three and keep multistep directions to a simple three. Also, for long-term projects that require more steps, I try to divide the project into smaller, more manageable components.

    Check out Part 2 for more tips on Working Memory and Self-Monitoring.

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