Executive Functioning: 4 Tricks to Improve Student Learning

April 27, 2018

Executive Functioning: 4 Tricks to Improve Student Learning

Every year, I find myself working with students who have been taught information, but they just don’t remember it; or students who I can predict will need a third copy of that assignment; or a student who forgot to do his or her homework–again.

Clearly, something is missing, and that "something" is executive functioning skills. 

Skills like organization, task initiation, working memory, planning and prioritization are necessary in order for kids to become successful students and adults. And, just as some students struggle in a particular content area, some students struggle with these executive functioning skills.

Students may need additional instruction, interventions, scaffolds–any support you would provide to a child struggling in any other subject area. Below are some tips and resources to start thinking about how to build support into your classroom. (Remember: You'll want to explicitly teach these skills, and incorporate them as authentically as possible on a daily basis.)

Here's how to get started. 

1. Break out your toolbox

Use both physical and mental organizational tools. Physical organizational tools can help students process information and make the content easier to understand. Think color-coded folders and notebooks, and accordion folders or binders. 

Encourage highlighting, leaning on helpful highlighting tips, and use planners, making sure to teach students how to use them. 

If traditional planners don’t seem to work with a student, consider alternatives like an online planner or app (Try Google Keep, My Study Life, or myHomework.)

2. Focus

Teach students how to use methods for focus, concentration, and active listening. At our school, we use Top 20’s concept of “parking” distracting thoughts in the mental parking lot. Use the gradual release of responsibility to help students become more independent with these strategies.

In addition, don't underestimate the power of modeling and role playing so they can observe multiple responses to various situations.

3. Break it up

Chunk material into manageable sections to help reduce anxiety. Unless the focus is following multi-step directions, provide students with only the information necessary to complete a task. Use a timer, and provide allotted times for directions, tasks, or activities.

 4. Go digital

Post a copy of assignments and resources in your learning management system or on a website. This will help students become more independent by providing them with access to anything they might need.

As with any strategy, what works for one student may not be as effective with another student. I recommend starting with a very honest and open conversation with students about distractions and how to manage them. Keep in mind that these strategies may look different because the needs of every group are different. It's about finding out what works for each student.

Try different tools to determine which are most helpful in terms of modifying less desirable behaviors and encouraging positive actions. With intentional, explicit, and continuous instruction, you can help your kids re-train their brains to develop new behaviors that will help them become successful students.

Here is a helpful resource containing additional information about executive functioning and strategies and resources for professionals

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of American College of Education.

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