January 31, 2020

How to Foster Executive Function in Every Grade

BY Amy Takabori

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What does executive function look like?

When I taught English to middle school students, I learned what executive function looked like firsthand.

Sasha was the model student. She followed instructions after hearing them once. She concentrated on her work without being distracted by the girls giggling next to her or the occasional chatter leaking in from the hall. I could always count on her to remember every step of a class activity or homework assignment. When chaos reigned in the classroom and I, a young teacher, questioned my own abilities, Sasha was my rock.

Brendan, on the other hand—well, he was what you might call easily distracted. Somehow, he didn’t get started on a class assignment until 5 minutes after everyone else was settled in, and then he would lean over to a neighbor to ask what to do. In group discussions, he would steer the conversion off-topic or be unable to help himself from pulling up a funny video on his phone. He made teaching eventful, to say the least.

If you are a teacher, I’m sure you’ve also had versions of Sasha and Brendan in your classes. These aren’t their real names, of course, but their behavioral differences are plenty real—and common. It’s not that Sasha was inherently a good student, and Brendan was a bad one. They just had different levels of executive function.

There’s a lot at stake when it comes to executive function skills. Executive function determines a student’s academic achievement throughout their time in school, and it even affects success in the workplace and life more generally. But some students, like Brendan, need extra support to reach their full executive function potential.

Fortunately, executive function is a skill set that can be developed, and educators can do a lot to help students along the way! Keep reading to learn more about executive function and how to help students strengthen their capacity for it at every grade level and age.

What is executive function?

Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child defines executive function and self-regulation skills as

“the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.”

(Source)

We know now that development of these skills is not guaranteed and that children with executive function problems do not necessarily outgrow them. Children who struggle to plan and organize their work in early elementary may become adolescents who fall behind in homework, have difficulty completing projects, and struggle to progress academically.

In particular, youth from economically disadvantaged groups tend to suffer from under-development of these skills, which puts them behind even before entering elementary school. Severe under-development may also lead to behavioral problems and, in some cases, failure in school, as many teachers are not trained to recognize or treat these problems effectively. These unfortunate facts reinforce the achievement gap that already exists for at-risk groups in underserved communities, since those with behavioral challenges are often kept out of classroom work and, in turn, may have trouble paying attention when in class.

How to build executive function

What can educators do? Here are some classroom strategies to help students develop executive function so that they can succeed both in and out of the classroom.

Elementary School Grades K-5 (Ages 5-11)

  • Play Guessing Games
    • Guessing games require players to exercise their working memory and flexible thinking as they hold an increasing number of details in mind. Popular guessing games include 20 Questions and Guess My Rule, which can be played with blocks or other items of different colors, sizes, and shapes so that children guess which attribute, or set of attributes, defines the rule for the set. (Source)
  • Play Games that Require Fast Responses
    • Children develop attentional skills and inhibition when they play games requiring fast responses and monitoring. For example, flash cards can be used in a version of Snap or Slapjack. (Source) Technology can offer even more effective games that elicit rapid responses, such as Fast ForWord, which gamifies learning with exercises that simultaneously develop reading and cognitive skills.
  • Repeat Instructions in a Variety of Ways
    • Help students remember instructions by make them simple and by sharing them in multiple modalities: orally, visually, and even with gestures. You can also pair students with each other and have them repeat the directions to each other. Then have a volunteer repeat the directions for the whole class. (Source)

Middle School Grades 6-8 (Ages 11-14)

  • Offer Active Listening Practice
    • Use audio files to give students opportunities to develop attentional and active listening skills. Podcasts on various topics or NPR programming are excellent examples of free resources. Prepared worksheet questions can effectively direct students’ attention, especially for longer audio pieces.
  • Write Checklists
    • Help students develop planning and goal-setting skills by having them write checklists. Checklists can be helpful for a lesson, a week, or a long-term project. This checklist also trains students to prioritize in a way that makes sense to them. Some students might prefer to order tasks by difficulty or by independent/group responsibilities. (Source)

High School Grades 9-12 (Ages 14-18)

  • Map Out Large Projects
    • Teach students how to map out large-scale projects by breaking them down into smaller, more manageable pieces and using a calendar to determine benchmark deadlines for each component. (Source)
  • Sharpen a Sense of Time
    • Help students sharpen their sense of time so they can improve their ability to plan and juggle multiple tasks.
      • Exercise 1: Keep a log of how much time typical activities take over a designated period (e.g., one day, one week). By monitoring the frequency and length of time devoted to homework, browsing social media, watching a TV show, or other activities, students can notice when time flies and when it drags.
      • Exercise 2: Practice estimating how long a task takes to complete. Compare this estimate to the actual amount of time the activity required. Do this periodically throughout the year, and help students recognize their improved sense of time.
      • Exercise 3: Use a reflection worksheet after a project or activity to think about current time management strategies, including successful examples and areas for improvement. (Source)

6 comments on “How to Foster Executive Function in Every Grade”

  1. I not only love this concise breakdown of executive function (which I've heard so much about as a teacher), but also the resources so that I can help students. Thank you!

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