Critical Thinking

4 Ways to Promote Executive Functioning Skills

Middle and high school teachers can build activities that foster students’ executive functioning skills into their daily routines.

December 23, 2022
MBI / Alamy

As single-subject teachers in middle and high school, our planning focus is generally on creating engaging and meaningful lessons aligned with our curriculum and content. But where are the opportunities for students to build executive functioning skills? To what subject does that learning belong?

Many of our students, particularly during and after the pandemic, are managing an influx of stress, anxiety, and health challenges. Executive functioning skills aren’t inherent for maturing preteen and high school students, and the added challenges they‘re facing further disrupt their ability to build these skills.

Underdeveloped executive functioning in our students has a domino effect that leads to academic challenges and higher needs for intervention, and it ultimately necessitates more-individualized support from teachers.

While executive functioning skills aren’t innate and aren’t taught in one explicit lesson, they’re foundational for the academic and personal success of our students. So how can teachers build executive functioning supports and routines into classrooms without losing valuable lesson time?

1. Pomodoro technique: time management

Developed by Francesco Cirillo, the Pomodoro Technique is a way of breaking work into predictable intervals of 25 minutes of work and five minutes off. This often creates greater productivity and improves time management skills for students. Teachers can incentivize the breaks appropriately for their students with options such as allowing device use, outside time, quick games, etc. 

Using visual timers can help support students engaging in this kind of interval work and internalizing periods of time. Teachers can further benefit from this method by modeling it in their own teaching, offering themselves and students short breaks during times of direct instruction. 

2. I-Plan Strategy: organization and planning

Students utilizing a planner will write down assignments and due dates but often miss the key skill of translating that into action. Organization and planning don't come naturally for students, and the “I-Plan Strategy” is a way to scaffold their development of this skill. It’s simply a tool that offers students more agency and self-management of the organization of their time by allowing them to plan it out themselves.

For assignments that aren’t due the following class, such as long-term projects, reading schedules, packets, presentations, etc., offer students the opportunity to “I-Plan.” Students can work individually or as a group to outline their project benchmarks. When students have a shared deadline to finish a novel, for example, offer the class an opportunity to break down the reading schedule together.

For individual assignments, such as presentations, offer students benchmarks and give them time to map out their own individual due dates. A shift happens when you give students the agency over their benchmark dates and move beyond a due date into an actionable and progressive plan.

3. Personal Road map: self-reflection and goal-setting

As teachers, we know the importance of goal setting and reflection. For many of us, it’s built in as part of our own professional development and pedagogical practice. When you offer the opportunity to engage in goal setting and reflection in the classroom, students connect more with their own growth and progress.

Teachers can work in goal setting and reflection opportunities by using and adapting the Personal Road Map, a single sheet of paper that students interact with throughout the year. Begin your school year by having students define and set their own personal success goals for your class on a Personal Road Map.

Each grading period, allow students five minutes to reflect on their progress in class and how it aligns with their goals. These road maps encourage a growth mindset that may lead to more active engagement in the course. Teachers can utilize this resource themselves when conferencing with students or their grown-ups, or even when considering growth-based grading.

4. Positivity Partners: working memory and social interaction

Students thrive when they’re part of a positive support system that enables them to feel comfortable in their social interactions. Positivity Partners are teacher-assigned student partners who rotate throughout the school year at the teacher’s discretion. Teachers can build in time for Positivity Partners to interact and reflect on the class, allowing space for students to practice navigating a variety of low-stakes social interactions.

The last two minutes of a class period can feel frantic, and students can lose information in the bustle. Positivity Partners is a system designed to close each class period routinely and positively. For the last two minutes of class, Positivity Partners meet with one another to do one of the following: summarize what they learned in class, review the homework or upcoming due dates, or commend one another on something done or said in class. Not only do Positivity Partners build classroom community and closure routines, but they offer students an opportunity to integrate working memory into a social interaction and maybe even receive some positive praise.

Supporting the growth of executive functioning is a practice that buoys the lifelong learning of all students. By building opportunities for this growth into daily lessons and routines, teachers support real-world skill development that yields successful outcomes for students and teachers alike.

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Filed Under

  • Critical Thinking
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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