When students enter middle school, the academic demands become exponentially more challenging. The transition to middle school comes with changing teachers, learning routines and expectations for each of those classes, staying organized in a cohesive way, managing time to get from class to class, and juggling responsibilities. It’s a steep learning curve for many students, but especially those who struggle with executive functioning skills.
The good news is that we can teach, practice, and support executive functioning skills in our students.
Something important to mention is that executive functioning success isn’t going to look the same for every person. As individuals, we each have our own unique profiles and that applies to executive functioning skills too. The goal is providing the tools to learners to empower them to build the skills that work best for them.
Here are 25 activities you can do WITH your students to help build their executive functioning skills:
Discuss and Practice Routines
Routines and habits are where the magic is. Ahead of time, plan out routines for daily classroom activities. Then, spend time discussing, modeling, and practicing those routines with your students. For example, you might have routines for handing in homework, writing daily assignments down, getting together with a group for group work, and getting ready to leave the class.
You can take this one step further by helping students come up with their own daily routines for getting ready for school and starting homework when they get home.
Keep Daily Schedules
A daily schedule provides support with planning, organization, and time management. While it’s helpful for the class schedule to be listed somewhere visible in the room, students themselves should have a visual copy of their own schedule. Some students may choose to keep their schedule inside their binder, or posted right on the front.
If your students do not have printed schedules prepared for them, it’s worth the time to have students list out their schedules, color code them, and keep them in a visible spot.
Learn about Brain Plasticity
Brain plasticity is the idea that the neural connections in our brains can grow, change, and improve. With practice, we can actually mold and shape our brains. This is incredibly important to teach middle schoolers, especially as work begins to get challenging.
Discuss Strengths and Challenges
As unique individuals, we all have our own strengths and challenges (and these change over time too). Strengths are the abilities we do well. Challenges are the areas we need work on. Begin a discussion with students about strengths and challenges, identifying what skills students feel have a solid foundation for and which skills they need to work on.
Set Up Homework Systems
If you assign homework, it’s important for your students to have solid homework systems in place. This most commonly consists of two things: a homework log (agenda) and a homework folder.
Homework log: This is the place where students will record daily homework assignments for all of their classes. Practice is required to help students learn how to be specific in writing in the homework log, and how to make it a habit.
Homework folder: A folder is important to help students keep homework assignments all together in one spot. My favorite strategy is to have students write “to do” on one side and “done” on the other. This gives some simple structure to keeping a homework folder organized.
Read more about homework interventions for executive functioning challenges.
Questioning is a metacognitive strategy. Rather than telling students what to do, use questioning to help them put the pieces together on their own. Some examples include:
- You have a history quiz tomorrow. What are some ways to study?
- I’m passing back your essay. Where should this go in your binder?
- We’re starting independent working time. What are three things you can do if you’re stuck?
Teach Executive Functioning Skills Explicitly
Help students build executive functioning skills by teaching them explicitly. This means spending time talking about skills like planning, organization, task initiation, and time management. Review strategies and supports for each of these skills and provide time to practice together.
Give Time for Strategy Shares
A strategy share is a time for students to share their process in how they solved a problem. You might have students show how they solved a math problem on the board or explain how they used reading strategies to make sense of a passage.
These are helpful to build skills for problem-solving, cognitive flexibility, and perseverance. The best part is that students are learning from other students.
Create To-Do Lists
A to-do list is a tried and true strategy for planning, prioritizing, managing time, and getting started. Best of all, to-do lists can be used for almost anything, from daily classroom work to long-term projects.
Try creating a to-do list with your students for daily classroom work. Have them write down their lists in their notebooks as you list them on the board.
Use these free executive functioning activities to get started.
Pace Out Long-Term Projects
Model and practice time management by pacing out your long-term projects together. You might start this by providing an outline for your first long-term project to model what it looks like. Next, do this activity with your students. Here are a few steps to try with your classroom on your next long-term project:
- List the major parts of the long-term project together.
- Come up with mini-deadlines for each of those parts.
- Write these out in a list as a plan.
- Follow up by checking in with students on the mini-deadlines.
Use Think Alouds
Think alouds are a strategy that allows learners to see into our thinking as we complete a task. This is a simple idea with big impacts. For example, you might use a think aloud as you walk students through completing a challenging math problem or explain your process as you are organizing your materials.
Once students have the idea down, you can have them try a think aloud as they complete a task for the class as well.
End-of-Class Organization Time
Organization time should happen every single day. Spend just three minutes at the end of class making sure papers are put in the correct spot, homework is written down, and materials are orderly for the next class. Not only does this prepare students for their next class, but it also reinforces the idea that organization is an on-going practice.
Check In with Emotions
In order for students to do their best emotionally and academically, they need skills for understanding, managing, and self-regulating their emotions. Use an emotions check-in to help learners identify how they feel and what strategies they could use to manage those feelings.
Integrate Executive Functioning Skills into the Curriculum
Executive functioning skills are in everything we do. Highlight, model, practice, and discuss executive functioning skills throughout the content you are currently teaching. Some examples include:
- Time management: Before starting a group or independent assignment, have students estimate how long they think it will take them to finish.
- Metacognition: Before learning a new topic, use a KWL chart on the board to have students share what they know and want to know.
- Flexibility: After learning about a topic, have students reflect on how the new information has changed and shaped their thinking.
Grab everything you need to teach executive functioning skills for the whole year.
Allow Students to Fix Mistakes
After grading an assessment, allow students to go back and fix their mistakes for partial credit. This practice involves students thinking about their thinking (metacognition) and trying new strategies (flexibility) as they work to get the correct answer. You can opt to have students write a short paragraph explaining what they did wrong and how they fixed it in order to qualify for those extra points.
Practice Coping Skills
Healthy coping skills help students manage their everyday emotions. The key here is that in order for students to effectively use coping skills in their lives, these strategies must be second nature. In order to get there, we have to practice often.
Add coping skills practice into your classroom by choosing one strategy to practice once a week for a few minutes. These can also be added into advisory time.
Work with students to come up with goals for the short-term and long-term. Write out these goals as SMART goals. Then, meet with students on a regular basis to review these goals and assess progress.
Talk About Executive Functioning Skills
Bring meaningful discussions into your classroom when you talk about executive functioning skills. One of my favorite strategies for executive functioning chats are to discuss 1-2 questions a day at the beginning or end of class. Use executive functioning task cards to start with hundreds of brain-focused questions.
Target One Skill a Day
Focus on just one executive functioning skill a day by reviewing the executive functioning ABCs. These consist of skills like activating your brain, being self-aware, choices, developing a plan, and evaluating priorities.
Encourage Executive Functioning Practice at Home
Encouraging practice with executive functioning skills at home reinforces the idea that these are not just school skills but life skills. Encourage learners to plan a meal with families (planning) or learn something new (metacognition). This is also a great way to encourage home activities without actually assigning homework.
Practice Daily Reflection
At the end of class, spend a few minutes reflecting by talking about what went well, what skills students worked on, what good choices they made, and how they can improve for the next day. Learn more about getting started with daily reflection questions.
Provide Brain Breaks
Self-regulation skills are not endless; we all need to replenish them on regular basis to help us do our best, and students are no exception to this. Practice brain breaks between tasks. Not only does this provide an important break that students need, but it also reinforces the idea that breaks are healthy to learn and excel.
Practice Study Skills
Study skills are the techniques we use before, during, and after learning. Integrate study skills instruction into your classroom. Here are a few simple strategies to try:
- Create flashcards together for important vocabulary before an assessment.
- Have students create a mock test/quiz before an assessment.
- Pair students up to ask each other questions on the topic they are currently learning.
Note: Don’t just assign these as homework. Spend actual classroom time learning and practicing them together!
Learn more about tips for teaching study skills to your middle school students.
Practice Problem-Solving Scenarios
Problem-solving scenarios are made-up situations that involve a challenge or problem. Reading and discussing these scenarios gives kids real-life practice in solving problems. You can make up your own scenarios and even have kids share some.
Use Brain Teasers
Brain games are an engaging and meaningful way to practice executive functioning skills. Many activities involve skills for attention, flexibility, working memory, and perseverance. A few to try include:
- Decipher the Code – Provide a secret message to students and have them decipher it to figure out what it means. You can add in your own secret messages for inspiration or make it a phrase to go along with your content area.
- Kick One Out – Provide a set of 4 or 5 different objects (or words). Have students figure out which one doesn’t belong in that group. For example, you might include pictures of a cupcake, crown, crab, comb, and backpack. Students will have to figure out that the backpack doesn’t belong.
Weekly Organization Time
Weekly organization time is a dedicated time and space to clean out binders, backpacks, desks, and/or lockers. This can be done during a study hall time or homeroom, but it can also be scheduled right into class time once a week as well.