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34. Skills for Executive Functioning
28th May 2024 • The Teaching Toolbox - A Podcast for Middle School Teachers • Brittany Naujok & Ellie Nixon, Podcast for Middle School Teachers
00:00:00 00:19:53

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Today, we're tackling a crucial yet often overlooked aspect of education, especially in middle school: Skills for Executive Functioning. It's about helping our students not just academically but also in managing their time, energy, emotions, and actions more effectively.

Topics Discussed

  • What is executive functioning?
  • Why are these skills so important for students to develop?
  • How can we tell students need support in this area?
  • What percentage of students struggle with executive functioning?
  • 6 ways we can support students in this area


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Ellie 0:00

You look at your students planners, some of them look like works of art with everything written neatly with due dates and arrows to show assignments that cover multiple days. Maybe they're even color coded. Other planners, however, may be totally blank, or have random words written here. And they're not necessarily coinciding with the subject they're written under. What could that be a sign of? I'm Ellie, and I'm here with Brittany.

Brittany 0:28


Ellie 0:29

And today we're tackling a crucial yet often overlooked aspect of education, especially middle school - skills for executive functioning. It's about helping our students not just academically, but also in managing their time, energy, emotions and actions more effectively.

Brittany 0:47

First off, what exactly is the executive function definition, or executive function skills? Well, executive function skills are basically the mental processes that are crucial for controlling and managing our thoughts or actions emotions. These skills include planning, organizing, strategizing, paying attention to, remembering details, managing time and space. In the context of middle school where students are navigating more complex academic and social landscapes. executive function skills become increasingly important. They help students manage their homework, organize their study time, make thoughtful decisions about their behavior, and interactions with others. Let's go over a list of some executive functioning skills or activities and what they include.

Ellie 1:41

So one would be self regulation,

Brittany 1:46

self control, which is actually different than self regulation,

Ellie 1:51

working memory,

Brittany 1:53

time management,

Ellie 1:55


Brittany 1:57


Ellie 1:59


Brittany 2:00


Ellie 2:03


Brittany 2:05


Ellie 2:06


Brittany 2:08

task management,

Ellie 2:10

and mindfulness. That is a pretty long list with a lot of a lot of things in there. So these skills are so important to learning. According to the website, effective executive functions are the bridge between social emotional learning and academic content between being ready to learn and actually learning students must become organized to learn in order to truly be successful. We can't ask students to retain academic content, if they're feeling overwhelmed by their materials, stressed out about forgetting upcoming assessments, or unsure of how to actually prepare for assessments on their own. Executive functions are all skills that can be taught, practiced, and developed into habits which can be performed under stress. And again, that is from effective

Brittany 3:03

In Article on middle shares that executive function skills are not hardwired into the brain, which means we weren't born with them, but we learn them. And they can grow quickly, between the ages of actually three and five. However, many students grow up in environments that don't foster those skills. And so students may end up in elementary school or middle school with a deficit in this area. The middle article states that the brains push to acquire e f skills spikes during adolescence, which is encouraging to us as middle school teachers, the spike is occurring naturally. And we have the chance to enhance it in the classroom.

Ellie 3:54

That is excellent to know, you know, as a parent thinking about those ages from three to five, you know, but our middle schoolers we don't see at those ages, so it's exciting to know that there is another chance to help them with these skills. So before we do try to enhance that spike, how can we tell if our students are lacking in executive function skills like what can we be looking for?

Brittany 4:17

Well, one clear sign that a middle school student may lack executive function skills, is they have difficulty organizing or prioritizing tasks. So that can manifest as consistently failing to complete homework or projects on time. Maybe they have a messy backpack or a locker or desk, being unable to plan ahead for assignments and tests. Another sign is struggling with following multi step instructions. So if you give them three or four directions, and they've forgotten after step one, or they take off towards step one, and then they have to come back and ask you what they were supposed to do. All these students might frequently ask for the same directions to be repeated over and over. Or they might complete tasks out of order or not at all.

Ellie 5:10

So it's not that they're not listening necessarily. It's that they're having trouble actually processing.

Brittany 5:17


Ellie 5:17

Multistep directions.

Brittany 5:18

Exactly. And that's one thing that can like demoralize a kid, I think is that teachers and parents will often say you're not listening, when in fact, the kid is listening is trying, but it's the processing skills.

Ellie 5:34

For sure.

Brittany 5:35

Students with weak executive function skills often have trouble with impulse control and emotional regulation. And that might appear as overreacting to small problems, or having difficulty waiting their turn in conversations or activities, acting without considering consequences. They might experience challenges and shifting focus from one task to another, leading to resistance and transitioning between activities or subjects in school, or maybe like in personal life, like leaving the bookstore, or, you know, being done and having to leave the house and go shopping or something.

Ellie 6:18

Right, right.

Brittany 6:20

Recognizing the signs is the first step in supporting students to develop their executive function skills, thereby enhancing their ability to learn and interact with others effectively.

Ellie 6:31

which was written in April of:

Brittany 8:37

I know that when I went to college, I was not trained in how to teach executive functioning skills.

Ellie 8:44

No, that was nowhere.

Brittany 8:46

And I don't think I ever had a professional development course. On executive functioning skills.

Ellie 8:53

No, now that you say that, I don't I don't think so either, I think is kind of up to like me to learn things on my own and then be like, Oh, my students need this. Maybe I should share this idea with them.

Brittany 9:05

Exactly. I definitely picked it up along the way and, and thought it was important teaching kids how to do time management and planning and organizing and prioritizing,

Ellie 9:16

right, right.

Brittany 9:17

Knowing that students brains are ready to acquire effective functioning skills in middle school, we can use various strategies to both incorporate and teach executive function and in the middle school classroom. So we've got six ideas for you today. The first is goal setting and planning activities. We can encourage students to set short term and long term goals. There's three different ways we've got for you to do this. This can be done through activities that help them break down these goals into manageable steps, and then plan how to achieve them. So teach the students to chunk their big assignment. into smaller tasks, and then set due dates for themselves. So that's one way to achieve the goal. We can incorporate planners or digital tools to assist in this process teaching students how to allocate their time for each task, and then prioritize the responsibilities. Or we can also teach prioritization by using like color coding for due dates, or highlighting of assignments by priority. Another thing we can do is to chunk things. So it's kind of related, you can chunk things to increase attention and focus. Sometimes students have difficulty with multi step directions. So we can give one direction at a time, we can use mini lessons. And we can use timers to encourage students to stay focused for a set period of time.


And this reminds me a little bit of the transitions episode we did with ways to help students transition effectively, because we did talk about using timers and things like that. So that might be something to check out. If you want to see how you can incorporate some strategies into the classroom that might help students who have difficulty with transitions. We can also use organizational systems for students, we can help them by implementing organizational systems in the classroom. This could involve organizing materials or using color coded folders for different subjects. You could also head back and listen to our episode about color in the classroom for a few tips here, because we've got some excellent tips there for organization with color. organizational systems can also include maintaining a clean and orderly workspace, teaching students how to actually keep their physical and digital workspaces organized, can significantly enhance their ability to manage and complete tasks efficiently. This just reminds me of a student when I was teaching fourth grade, incredibly bright student, but his desk was, oh my gosh, it was so scary, and he couldn't find anything. So even though it was super bright, he could do all the work, he just had no idea how to organize himself. And so we had to really take the time to go through and set up an organizational system for him. Even providing a student office area where kids can get stapled their papers, hole punch, get Kleenex or band aids, and things like that can help to teach them about organizational systems. We could do time management lessons, which again, helps with planning and organizing, we could incorporate quick lessons focused on time management skills, you know, maybe a quick five minute thing once a week or something, it can include teaching students how to use a calendar or schedule, understand the importance of breaking the tasks into smaller, more manageable parts and learning how to avoid procrastination. For several years, I would do mini lessons to help students plan their homework and their study time. So many students have after school activities, or their siblings have after school activities, and they'd have to go along and so they would tell me that they couldn't get their work done because of these activities. So we would look at calendars. And you know, I'd make them their own calendar for the days of the week. And then we would block out the school day, so that they wouldn't have any, you know, we wouldn't be reading anything there besides school. And then they would write in activities that they knew would take them away from home after school. So then they could look at what was left, what time was left, and where they could fit in their homework. And I would share my own personal calendar, where I had all of my kids activities, and any special events happening on the calendar. And it was color coded by person. So my older daughter was orange, my son was green, my younger daughter was purple, and that kind of thing. And so I showed them what mine looked like. So they would have an example of an adult calendar. And then once they looked at theirs, and they they they had everything there that they were committed to then they could pencilling where their homework time or study time would fit during the day. And then we would talk about what they could do if they didn't have any big chunks of time. My kids would do homework at another child's practice or something like that. They would take their materials do it at another child's practice. So I do have a blog post about this that I wrote a few years ago. So we can link that up in the show notes.


You can also do homework in the car to a certain extent,


if you don't get carsick.


Yeah, yes,


I think because my youngest daughter gets carsick. So she couldn't. But we could study for quizzes that way. You know, like if I had the materials, or if I knew what the quiz was about, I could ask questions while we're driving. And she could answer them without any carsick danger.


Yeah. We did the same thing. Exactly. Yep. Perfect. Another thing you can do is to teach mindfulness and stress management techniques by integrating those mindfulness exercises to help students become more aware of their thoughts and feelings. means practices such as deep breathing guided imagery. Having a calm down corner, or daily gratitude journals can help students learn to manage stress, and focus on the present moment. These techniques can improve concentration, help with emotional regulation, and resilience. I know that I used to use mindfulness after recess or lunch, so that students would come in and we would do five to 10 minutes of meditation, just listening to like an app like headspace or calm, so that students could get in the right frame of mind for learning again, yeah, that's great. And I do have a free digital download for teachers where they can have students fill out a daily check, mindfulness check, to see kind of where students are at. Like if they had breakfast, how they're feeling today, that sort of thing.


So that's great.


We'll link that as well.


Definitely grab that.


Another thing you can do is reflection and self assessment, encourage regular reflection and self assessment. help students become aware of their strengths and areas for improvement in terms of executive functioning skills. This could be through discussions, journals, or a checklist, reflecting on what strategies work best for them, and then recognizing their progress can motivate students to continue developing their executive functioning skills.


With so many executive functioning skills that we can think about addressing. I'd suggest starting with choosing just one or two skills that seem to be areas of need for many of your students, and consider adding one or two of the strategies we talked about into your week.


We hope this episode gave you just a few new ideas you can add to this aspect of your teaching toolbox. Follow us on Facebook or IG or find us on our website at teaching toolbox. We'll see you next time.






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