Executive functioning skills are in everything our students do. They involve planning for assignments, organizing binders and backpacks, focusing during lessons, problem-solving through challenges, and persevering to reach goals.
Starting off the school year can be extremely taxing on students’ executive functioning skills. In many cases, students go from a relaxed summer to a rigorous school setting in just the change of a calendar day. Instead of lazy days and free choice activities school days are filled with expectations, challenges, and deadlines.
This is why starting off the school year with a foundation of executive functioning strategies is so important. It helps set the tone for success, providing supports to all learners, but especially those who need it the most.
Here are 6 simple executive functioning strategies to start the school year with:
1. Teach, Model, and Practice Routines.
Routines are critical for executive functioning success because they can help students become independent.
Something important to understand is that self-regulation skills are limited. They are not finite. In other words, students only have so much self-regulation skills for a period of time before they need to be replenished. Routines for everything take the guesswork out of many of these tasks, freeing up mental energy for other academic tasks along the way.
Consider if there are simple routines for turning homework in, finding the homework if a student is out, writing homework down, getting into groups, and cleaning up before leaving. These are just a few examples; the routines in your classroom might be different, and that’s okay.
While these activities seem simple to us as adults, they can become complex to kids and teens struggling with executive functioning challenges. Routines can make all the difference.
Once routines are set, they need to be modeled and practiced many times in order to help students make use of them effectively. This even means revisiting them after long weekends and school breaks, long after the year has started.
2. Integrate Skills into Academic Content.
All executive functioning skills are inherently linked with academic content no matter what you are teaching. You can help students build these skills by weaving them into what you are already doing. The options for this are endless.
If you assigning a long-term project, pull out the calendar and pace mini-deadlines along with students. Model and discuss how this is time management in action.
Prior to a test or quiz, have students develop their own questions. Not only is this a research-backed strategy, but it also targets metacognition and study skills.
During a text or read aloud, discuss how a character uses self-control or perseverance to work through a problem.
3. Talk About Executive Functioning Skills.
Learning about executive functioning skills can build self-awareness. Students need to understand that these are skills they can build and shape over time.
One of my favorite quick strategies for this is using an executive functioning question of the day as a class discussion starter. These are thought-provoking questions that encourage students to grow their brains. Best of all, kids learn from other kids. Some questions from these executive functioning task cards you might ask:
- You have a lot of homework and you have practice at 6pm. What can you do?
- What does it mean to prioritize? How it is related to time management?
- Do you prefer to work on the most challenging assignment or the easiest one first? Why?
Learn more about executive functioning resources you can use in the classroom.
4. Provide Organization Time.
Everyone needs a chance to re-organize and catch-up on tasks. For many learners, school work and organization become “out of sight and out of mind” once they step out of the classroom. This is why it helps to build organization time right into the classroom environment.
Depending on your students, you can choose to schedule this time once a day or once a week.
For example, each Friday, try scheduling 10 minutes for organization and catch-up. Students can organize binders, toss out materials they no longer need, and check-up to see if they have any assignments missing that they need to finish.
If you notice your students need a little more support, try using the first 5-10 minutes of class as organization time.
5. Encourage Strategy Discussions
Create times for students to share what strategies they have used to work through problems and activities in the classroom. Again, this works for all content areas from reading to math and everything in between.
For example, you might invite students to share with the class how they solved a math problem, planned out an essay, or worked through a quiz.
Some questions you might ask:
- What strategies did you use to solve this?
- How did you plan your approach?
- What steps did you take to complete this?
- What went well for you? What was challenging?
- What techniques worked best for you as you completed this assignment?
- Can you show the class how you solved this?
Allowing a student to be the teacher not only helps that individual learner, but all the other learners in the room too. Sharing strategies becomes a way for students to learn from each other.
6. Schedule and Plan Brain Breaks
Students cannot have their brains “on” all the time. As mentioned above, self-regulation is a limited resource that we only have so much of at one time. The good news is that we can replenish our self-regulation skills with brain breaks.
Use mindful breathing to improve calm and focus, or consider an exercise brain break to integrate some physical activity and movement. If you work with nature-lovers, give these nature-themed mindful brain breaks a try.
Learn More about Executive Functioning
- Understanding Executive Functioning Skills
- 15 Ways to Teach Executive Functioning Skills
- Executive Functioning Activities