Teaching Executive-Function Skills

  • How You Can Help Your Students

    One student has trouble remembering to bring her homework back to school, even though she’s finished it. Another student constantly bothers his peers while the teacher is speaking, and sometimes has outbursts in class. And a third seemingly has no motivation to complete tasks when there is no obvious reward for doing so.

    The issues these students face may seem different, but they are linked, and all are governed by the brain’s executive-function skills. Those are the skills we use to pay attention, organize, plan, manage time, regulate impulse control, follow instructions, remember important things, and work with others. These skills develop beginning in infancy (a toddler sorting blocks by color is learning organization skills, for example), continue through adolescence (a teenager judging how long it will take to complete writing a paper is using planning and time management skills), and progress through adulthood, when working with others, dealing with job pressures, paying bills, understanding multiple points of view, and practicing impulse control are all part of daily life.

    Executive-function skills have been compared to the conductor of an orchestra: The musicians and instruments are all different, but the conductor holds the baton – and the overall vision – and is in control of all the musicians, telling them  when to play and when to sit back and stay silent. Without a conductor, a piece of music could easily sound like chaos. And that’s also what it can feel like to a child who struggles with executive-function tasks that others seem to accomplish easily.

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    The Dominican University Online course “Developing Executive-Function Skills in the Primary Classroom,” helps teachers understand the intricacies of executive-function skills and devise strategies for helping students improve by analyzing their own classrooms.

    What it’s like to struggle with executive function skills

    Let’s go back to that orchestra, and take away the conductor. Before long, the horns are drowning out the violins; a drummer increases or decreases the tempo seemingly at random, and a stubborn cellist adds flourishes that, while beautiful, throw the surrounding musicians off. It’s like dominoes – one thing drifts, which affects something else, which in turn affects something else.

    A child with weak executive-function skills may have trouble with tasks that seem simple – getting dressed without distraction, keeping track of what needs to be packed in their backpack, remembering that today was their day to bring something for show-and-tell. They tend to forget things and lose things more often than others. And explaining priorities to this child – who may otherwise be very bright – doesn’t necessarily mean they will be more organized tomorrow; he or she may still be puzzled about how they misplaced their textbook, or how everyone else “just knows what to do.”

    How teachers can help students learn executive function skills

    “Forming warm and responsive relationships with children is important for their executive-function development,” writes Education Hub.  “In particular, providing comfort when children are distressed or need support helps to scaffold executive function skills. Classroom environments that support the development of strong executive function skills have many characteristics in common.” Some of these include:

    • Clear expectations and instructions;
    • Organized classroom environments;
    • Integrating ways in which to practice executive function skills in classwork and social interactions;
    • Consistent methods of discipline;
    • Training teachers to set examples of and teach executive functions skills in a positive way. This can be through checklists, games, routines, cues for transition between class activities, mindfulness exercises, tasks that build children’s independence and confidence; and
    • Encouraging students to teach their families the executive-function games they have learned at school.

    Students who live in dysfunctional homes, who are experiencing homelessness, or who have suffered trauma or abuse may have slow development of their executive-function skills. Other students who lack the needed level of executive-function skills have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Their brains are wired differently, which gives them some strengths – the ability to hyperfocus, for instance – and some weaknesses, including difficulty with focus, trouble staying still, and impulsivity. Depending on the type of ADHD, they may make careless mistakes, seem to be elsewhere while being spoken to, can be forgetful and disorganized, and may have trouble completing things they start.

    “Executive dysfunction is ubiquitous in children with ADHD, which helps to explain why so many students with attention deficit are reprimanded for forgotten homework, disorganized projects, running out of time on tests, and more,” writes ADDitude magazine, a publication for those who have ADHD or who work with those who have it. It offers several suggestions on setting up classrooms that encourage the building of executive-function skills in students (with or without ADHD):

    • Alternative seating: Instead of just desks in rows or clusters, add standing desks, lap desks, or yoga balls to the mix.
    • Time-management tools: Timer apps, smartphone reminders, and planners can help students stay on track.
    • Fidget objects: These are small objects that students can hold and explore/fidget with while they listen to a teacher. Many have small moving parts that keep the fingers busy while the brain stays engaged.
    • Noise-canceling headphones: For students who are easily distracted by sounds while they’re working independently on an assignment.
    • Movement breaks: They can consist of stretches, yoga breaks, or other activities that get students moving around, which can help them focus anew when they get back to their work.

    “Providing the support that children need to build these skills at home, in early care and education programs, and in other settings they experience regularly, is one of society’s most important responsibilities,” writes Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child. “Growth-promoting environments provide children with ‘scaffolding’ that helps them practice necessary skills before they must perform them alone. Adults can facilitate the development of a child’s executive function skills by establishing routines, modeling social behavior, and creating and maintaining supportive, reliable relationships. It is also important for children to exercise their developing skills through activities that foster creative play and social connection, teach them how to cope with stress, involve vigorous exercise, and over time, provide opportunities for directing their own actions with decreasing adult supervision.”

    Sharpen your executive-focus teaching skills

    Dominican University of California’s online course has four major objectives:

    1. To research and learn about executive-function skills.
    2. To reflect on student behaviors you’ve observed in the classroom.
    3. To explore ways teachers and parents can together help students develop such skills.
    4. To develop strategies to use in your own classroom.

    The course is worth three continuing-education credits. If you’re interested in learning more, or if you’d like to register for the class, click here.

    Image from iStock photos.