All educators would likely agree that executive functioning skills are critical to student academic and social success. These are the skills that help learners plan for assignments, stay organized, use self-control to make good choices, use flexible thinking to solve problems, and persevere through challenges. The issue is usually when and how to make time to teach these skills in the busy day of an educator. As a past educator myself, I can attest that there is never enough time in the day as it is. With that said, making time for executive functioning skills is not only important, but it is always worth it. The good news is that there are several opportunities that every teacher can consider for how to teach and integrate executive functioning skills into the day. Sometimes, it takes a little planning and creativity, but it is always possible.
What are Executive Functioning Skills?
Before getting started on when to teach these skills, it’s worth taking a moment to share what executive functioning skills are. EF skills are the processes in our brains that help us accomplish daily tasks. Feel free to read more information on what executive functioning skills are, but here’s a quick overview for the 10 skills included:
- Planning is developing a well thought out strategy prior to beginning a task. Examples might include writing homework down in a homework log and making a checklist before starting a project.
- Organization is developing neat and orderly systems to keep track of materials. Kids and teens showing strong organization skills might use a calendar to plan out important dates and keep organized binders.
- Task Initiation means starting work right away. Examples of this skill include beginning academic work without procrastinating and cleaning up materials right when instructed by a teacher.
- Time management is using time to effectively and efficiently complete tasks. Students use time management skills when pacing out long-term assignments and managing their time well on a timed quiz or test.
- Self-control is stopping and thinking before making a choice. Examples of self-control in action might be using a calm-down strategy when angry or upset, or talking a problem out before acting.
- Metacognition means thinking about our thinking. Students use this skill when deciding what material to study for a quiz, or reflecting on how to do better on a task in the future.
- Attention is focusing on a person or task for a period of time. For example, this might look like watching a speaker talk or staying focused on a homework assignment until it is completed.
- Working memory is juggling information in the brain while working with it. Students use working memory skills when remembering multi-step directions or completing mental math problems.
- Flexibility is being able to think in different ways to cope with change. An example of mental flexibility in action for a kid or teen might be staying calm when there is a change to the schedule.
- Perseverance is the ability to work through challenges in order to accomplish a goal. Someone might show perseverance when not giving up and using different strategies when a task is difficult.
Need to learn more information on executive functioning skills? Learn more about planning, organization, or time management. You can also head over and learn more about different executive functioning strategies every teacher can use.
When Can I Teach Executive Functioning Skills?
It’s pretty clear that the umbrella of executive functioning includes many critical skills that all learners need for success. So, the next question becomes when can these skills be taught? In the busy lives of educators, there are several ways to teach these skills directly or integrate them without turning your whole day upside down.
Morning meeting is a semi-structured group meeting time. There are many reasons to add a morning meeting time to the day. It is a positive way to start the day and build relationships. Morning meeting can even help kids boost confidence, increase motivation, and build a sense of community. Even more, this is also an ideal time to sneak in skill instruction.
The five steps for morning meeting include:
- Greetings. Give students a chance to greet each other for the day.
- Topic Introduction. Choose an important topic (such as organization or attention) to explain.
- Group Discussion. Bring up some thought-provoking questions on the topic for students to discuss.
- Activity Time. Use an activity or two to practice that skill.
- Reflection. Have students reflect by thinking about what that skill means in their life.
This step-by-step morning meeting guide goes in more in-depth about how to get started with morning meeting time.
Side note: Executive functioning skills are actually a component of social-emotional skills. For example, staying organized, planning, and starting work right away are all self-management skills. To get started, you can use these Morning Meeting Cards to build social-emotional and executive functioning skills.
Maximize student learning potential by transforming study halls into learning centers. This can be done for the first few minutes of study hall or maybe even just once a week. Use this targeted time to teach skills for planning, staying organized, managing time, and problem-solving through challenges. Simply put, all learners need these skills.
Use this free executive functioning poster to start discussing each of the skills together.
Beginning of Class
When it comes to fitting in executive functioning skills, every minute matters. Use the first few minutes of class to talk about these skills.
One technique is to post a question of the day up on the board or projector. Students can read the question, journal about it, and then discuss with a partner. You can ask simple questions: When is the best time to organize? What does it look like to pay attention in class? How can you tell you’ve done well on an assignment?
Another favorite technique for the beginning of class is to start with a daily executive functioning brain game. Some brain games to try include:
- Decipher the Code – Create a code that students need to decipher. This uses skills for working memory and attention.
- Writing Fluency – Have students come up with as many items that fit a certain category. For example, list as many different foods as you can in two minutes. This builds skills for time management and working memory.
- Sudoku – Give a sudoku puzzle and have students complete. These are great to build working memory, attention, flexibility, and perseverance.
- Word Whiz – Give a set of letters and have students spell out as many words as they can using those letters. This activity builds skills for attention, metacognition, and working memory.
- Brainteasers – Word puzzles and riddles to get kids thinking. Many of these can build on flexibility and perseverance skills.
End of Class
Use the last few minutes of class time to bring up executive functioning questions and discussion-starters. This is a favorite technique because you can ask one, two, or however many questions you have time for. Use targeted questions to get students thinking about how to plan, organize, manage time, and use self-control. Then, allow students to discuss and share ideas. So often, kids and teens learn best from each other.
Some examples of executive functioning building questions you might ask include:
- What are some strategies for remembering your homework? (planning)
- You have a lot of homework and practice at 6:00pm tonight. What can you do? (planning)
- How can keeping an organized notebook help you improve your grades? (organization)
- What can you do in the last five minutes of class that will help you be on time for your next class? (time management)
- What are some ways you can cool down or take a break when you are feeling angry? (self-control)
- You left your science binder in a friend’s locker and they are absent today. What can you do? (flexibility)
Come up with your own questions or use these executive functioning task cards to start.
Advisory period is a regularly scheduled time in the school day where educators can meet with a group of students to help advise them on social, academic, and personal needs. In best practices, advisory groups are kept small to help create a sense of community and give all kids the chance to have a voice. Given that advisory groups are often smaller, teaching executive functioning skills fits quite nicely in this time.
Some examples of tasks you might try in advisory period to build executive functioning skills might include:
- Teaching about organization and actually organizing binders together.
- Discussing study strategies and practicing studying for an upcoming test or quiz.
- Using riddles and brainteasers to work on flexibility and perseverance.
- Practicing problem-solving through various scenarios.
- Teaching about self-control and playing games to practice self-control skills.
- Use these free brain booster questions to start the discussion about different skills together.
Life Skills Class
Life skills class is also a fitting time to teach executive functioning skills. That’s because these skills are in fact life skills themselves. Integrate these skills right into the life skills curriculum and content to help kids and teens learn them now and in the future.
If you don’t have a life skills class in your school, consider starting or adding one. I always think that many kids and teens could use an “executive functioning boot camp,” where they learn the basics to each skill. Start with this free executive functioning workbook to learn about these skills. If you love it, feel free to check out the full executive functioning complete workbook that will take you through each skill!
During the Day
Teach executive functioning throughout the day by integrating them into the current academic content. This is something that every educator can do, whether teaching young elementary kids or even upper high school learners. Here are just a few examples to help illustrate how executive functioning skills can be woven into the average school day:
- Spend time organizing notebooks before moving onto the next unit. Talk about what an organized notebook looks like and practice together.
- Prior to taking a test, discuss strategies for persevering through challenging questions. Come up with a master list together.
- Use literature to highlight various executive functioning skills. In every book or story, characters use skills for planning, self-control, flexibility, and perseverance. Use these words to discuss and reinforce these skills.
- Give planning and organization time each day or week. Use this to teach the skills, but also to model and practice them right alongside students.
- Before an assessment, discuss study strategies and practice some together.
Ultimately, there are endless opportunities to practice and integrate executive functioning skills into the day. That’s because we use them in everything we do. The most important part is to be purposeful and targeted when integrating them in whatever content you are already teaching.