Building Executive Functioning Skills throughout the School Year

Do you have a student who frequently forgets to bring materials home or hand in homework? Have you ever wondered why a student who seems to grasp a concept is unable to apply the idea to new topics? Do you worry that the chaotic state of your child’s room is the physical manifestation of his scattered mind? Chances are these students are still developing key areas of their executive functioning skills.

These neurological processes help us perform daily tasks that require organization and self-regulation. The ability to manage our executive functioning skills develops throughout childhood and the teen years and often needs to be explicitly taught and practiced. Don’t assume your student has mastered these essential skills; rather, look for opportunities to nurture them and help set students up for success in and out of the classroom. After all, executive functioning skills are some of the foundations for learning.

September: Time to Organize – Organizational Skills

Developing systems of organization from the first day of school is a crucial part a successful school year. Teachers and parents should think of themselves as organizational coaches and help students master basic strategies for managing materials and ideas.

  • Backpacks are the mainstay of student organization from kindergarten through college. Help students develop the routine of emptying their backpacks at the end of each day and sorting materials into those that stay at home, those that return to school, and those that will be recycled.
  • Provide time at the end of each class or day for students to fill-in planners. Many schools provide paper planners, but students who tend to lose materials may benefit from an electronic planner app.
  • Provide time at the end of each week for students to clean desks and lockers.
  • Checklists are wonderful tools for organization. Have students tape school-to-home checklists in their lockers or keep home-to-school checklists in folders in their backpacks.
  • Organizing information is just as critical as organizing materials. Teach note taking styles like Cornell Notes and how to use graphic organizers.

October: Setting Goals

Students have been in school for a month, you know them a bit better, and parent conferences are on the horizon. It is time to set meaningful academic, social, and/or behavioral goals. Students should be included in the process of setting goals; after all, they are the ones striving to achieve them!

  • Keep goals specific and meaningful. For example, “I will spend ten minutes at the end of each school day filling in my planner and prioritizing my homework,” is an achievable goal for a student who is struggling with remembering homework assignments.
  • Guide students in setting goals and have them complete goal-setting worksheets. Have students review their progress on a regular basis.
  • If achieving goals were easy, we wouldn’t need them. Be a role model by setting a personal or professional goal and sharing your achievements and setbacks with your child or students. Likewise, setting a goal as a class or family can model the process with the safety of knowing it is a group effort.

November: Make a Plan and Stick with It – Planning & Prioritizing

The natural extension of setting goals is seeing them through. However, it is one thing to set a goal; it is a different thing to come up with a plan to achieve it. With the increased expectation that students complete long-term research papers and project-based learning assignments, learning how to plan a strategy for completion and see it through is more critical than ever.

  • Give students a few minutes at the end of each day to prioritize their nightly homework in planners by numbering assignments from first to last. Starting with the most difficult work is often a good choice so students are mentally fresh.
  • Help students create step-by-step timelines for long term assignments. Encourage brainstorming and outlining prior to writing.
  • Share scoring rubrics with students before they begin assignments. Rubrics provide a visual map of expectations and are perfect starting points for planning projects, writing assignments, and encouraging students to reflect critically on their work.
  • Engage students with games and activities that involve strategic planning, like chess and capture the flag.

December: But I Don’t Have Time! – Time Management

Our children are busier than ever. They juggle full school schedules, sports, lessons, and clubs, not to mention friends and family. Mastering good time management strategies becomes essential as students move into middle and high school and demands increase.

  • Students need to develop a sense of how long it takes to complete homework. Ask students to track the time each assignment takes by writing the total time they worked on an assignment in their planners next to each subject. This will enable students to estimate more accurately the time required to complete work and plan accordingly.
  • Most schools adhere to a recommended time for homework each night, typically ten minutes per grade level. If you child consistently takes longer then the recommended time to complete work, even with good time management practices, consult with her teacher. A trial run of modified assignments, that either reduces the workload or grading only the work completed within a set time, may decrease student frustration and increase learning.

January: Procrastination – Initiating Work

Getting back into a routine after a vacation can be a challenge for any of us, but students who have weak task initiation skills may find it particularly difficult. Use these tips to help students avoid procrastination and get started on tasks.

  • Ask students to write down the task they need to accomplish, estimate the time it will take to complete the work, and track start and finish time. Start with small tasks that are readily achievable.
  • Use verbal and nonverbal cues to signal the start of new tasks. For example, prompt students with keywords like “now” or “first” and gently tap your fingers on their desks.
  • Build in breaks. Let students know that after they have worked for a set time they will have a fun break activity. Younger students or those with attentional difficulties may need to start with short 5 – 10 minute effort times. Make brain breaks a part of your daily classroom schedule.
  • Don’t punish students by taking away recess. Exercise is crucial and often students who struggle in the classroom need these movement opportunities the most.

February: I Can’t Take it Anymore – Emotional Control

It is the depth of winter and the novelty of a new school year has long since worn off. Many students, parents, and teachers alike have reached their breaking points. It is time for all of us to focus on developing our emotional control skills.

  • Consult with the school counselor, most have some type of mindfulness training. Ask for classroom tips or invite her into the classroom to teach your students relaxation and anxiety reduction strategies.
  • Dim the lights, get your students comfortable, and play a guided relaxation audio like this free one for children.
  • Present typical scenarios where students may become frustrated or upset, such as playground confrontations, transition times, and test days. Have students take turns role-playing these situations and suggest simple go to phrases or methods for handling each scenario.

March: Bend that Mind – Cognitive Flexibility

Think back to your own student years where you were required to switch from subject to subject every fifty minutes, translate a math word problem into a numeric equation, then recognize a theme in a novel and write an essay using supporting details. All of these situations require students to shift from one way of thinking to another within a relatively short period, how exhausting! Those who struggle with cognitive flexibility are more likely to hit learning roadblocks and have difficulty finding alternate solutions to those problems.

  • Give students the opportunity to shift their thinking by announcing transitions ahead of time, following a set schedule, and including them in decision-making processes about schedules and routines.
  • Stretch their cognitive flexibility by asking children to think outside the box. Classroom warm-up times are perfect for challenging thinking with shifting activities including: visual word puzzles; word searches; optical illusions; puns, jokes, and riddles; board and card games like Spot It; and even some strategy-based online games.
  • Always guide students in making connections between big ideas and details. Some of us are bottom up thinkers and others are top down, either way, recognizing the interconnectedness of themes and details across subjects is essential to learning.

April: Thinking about Thinking – Metacognition

Educating a child is in large part, about training the student to think. Metacognition can be a difficult skill to foster because it asks students to reflect upon their own work. All of us want to succeed and reflecting critically about ourselves can be a difficult and emotional process.

  • Have students draft “How I Learn Best” letters to next year’s teacher reflecting on what they have discovered about their learning styles over the year. See to it that the letters make it into the hands of next year’s teachers.
  • Requiring students to submit study strategy reflection forms with tests and projects encourages them to evaluate the effectiveness of their efforts and contemplate how they can adjust their tactics to improve upon work quality the next time.
  • Encourage students to check over their work and require them to make corrections after assessments. Teach editing skills and require re-writes of papers.
  • Reflect on your own teaching or parenting methods periodically. If a student isn’t progressing toward a goal as you would like, examine what you can do differently to support her in obtaining that goal.
  • Praise children’s efforts, not their abilities. Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, is a must-read for parents and teachers.

May: What Did I Forget? Working Memory

Working memory is the keystone bridging long and short-term memory. Students with weak working memory skills will struggle with retaining and applying the concepts they learn. As final exams approach, even those students with strong working memories may reach their upper limits of retaining information.

  • Find the memorization strategies that work best for your subject and teach them to your students. Give students the time to practice and develop these techniques into habits. Read Help Teaching’s Memorization Strategies Checklist for some suggestions.  
  • Permit students to write information, like mnemonics and key words, on the test before answering questions. This frees up working memory and allows students to focus on applying what they studied with the knowledge that they can still refer to the information as needed.
  • Students with diagnosed working memory weakness may require classroom accommodations like the ability to audio record lectures, have copies of teacher notes, or access to word banks on tests. Parents and teachers should work closely to develop and implement these accommodations. 

June: Bringing it Home – Strategies for Summer Vacation

Routine, routine, routine. The structure of the school year has been removed and children, especially those with weak executive functioning skills, require predictability in their routines. Develop the routine for summer, from set meal and bedtimes to consistent daily childcare, and stick with it. Keep systems in place that were used successfully during the school year. For example, if your child does well with a planner, work together to fill out a family calendar at the start of each week with where she will be each day and what activities are planned. Simply giving your child the control of knowing what each day will bring will hopefully minimize meltdowns, anxiety, and disorganization. Mostly, praise your children’s efforts, acknowledge their progress, and enjoy your time with these fabulous people.

Be sure to check out our study skills worksheets to support your teaching needs.

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