Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Guiding Students to Improve Executive Functioning Skills

With explicit coaching, high school students can learn to manage their increasingly complex academic and extracurricular commitments.

June 1, 2021
marieclaudelemay / iStock

When high school students understand the key components of executive functioning, they’re better prepared to plan their time successfully. When they understand the difference between tasks that are urgent and those that are important, they’re better prepared to manage their time.

Executive function needs become more complex among high school students as their life roles evolve. Often their efforts to engage in goal-oriented behavior become strained by navigating academics, extracurricular activities, socializing, and part-time jobs. Too often, chaos results as they use self-management approaches they have outgrown, like keeping track of their assignments in their heads.

If our students understand three key components of executive functioning, they are better prepared to avoid the stress of urgency:

  • Flexible thinking enables the use of critical thinking and problem-solving to increase future effectiveness, like being open to a new approach for solving a word problem.
  • Self-regulation supports students’ ability to persist in the face of challenges, like using self-talk to overcome frustration.
  • Working memory enhances their ability to analyze and evaluate while planning, like referring to a previous assignment to estimate the time needed to complete an upcoming one.

Teachers can play a critical role in helping students understand these components of self-management and practice building their executive functioning skills. At each stage mentioned below, processing with you or a peer will prompt students to consider how to become better at self-management.

Stimulate Flexible Thinking

High school students can overlook in-depth processing—teenagers are, after all, notorious for prioritizing fun without considering the consequences. They also tend to resist new, unfamiliar approaches to learning that they perceive as risky. Teachers can encourage students to identify ineffective thinking and help them brainstorm alternative strategies.

When students list and analyze their responsibilities, they provide themselves with a concrete reference for processing. That way, they tend to limit impulsive or emotionally based decision-making.

Ask students to do the following:

1. List six to eight current and upcoming tasks.

2. Divide their list into three categories according to due date: one day, two days, or future.

3. Change the categories to one day, one week, and one month as their abilities to prioritize and plan improve.

4. Identify one action step for each task to encourage students to segment work into manageable chunks—for example, “outline English essay” or “revise history notes.”

Limitations of Self-Regulation

Students often think of self-regulation as a matter of sheer willpower, but often they need to think of it more as a limited resource—as a well that can run dry when overused.

Ask your students if they recognize the impact of managing their emotions and moods, resisting temptations, and completing complex tasks. Discussion with you or a peer helps them build self-awareness—an internal understanding of what might inhibit their persistence and efficiency.

Reassure students that self-regulation is like a muscle that responds to exercise: Well-managed short-term fatigue leads to long-term strengthening. Help them understand that when they prioritize tasks, they’re exercising their self-regulation skills, which is making them stronger every time, through repetition.

Prioritizing requires detecting the difference between important, goal-oriented tasks, like outlining information for a research paper due next week, and demanding, urgent tasks, like writing an essay they’re behind on. Explain to the students that urgent tasks offer little flexibility in terms of when, where, and how the work can be completed, and that crisis mode of urgency tends to displace logical reasoning with impulsive and emotionally charged decisions.

Stephen Covey’s time management matrix provides a pathway for identifying and prioritizing urgent versus important tasks. It also helps identify distractions and time wasters.

Ask students to use their categorized list to do the following:

1. Identify urgent versus important action steps based on their one- and two-day lists.

2. Discuss how a task became urgent: Was the procrastination due to anxiety, confusion, or poor planning? What are the practical and emotional implications of having urgent tasks? How might they have acted earlier?

Working Memory Conservation

Working memory is an underappreciated stage of information processing. Information is held, retrieved, and manipulated, but we give minimal thought to efficiency. You can help students understand that working memory varies in terms of capacity, duration, and focus. For example, even if they read and understood an assignment last night, if it’s not moved to long-term memory or worked with actively, their working memory can discard it.

Details, such as remembering assignments and appointment times, tend to overwhelm working memory capacity and lead to the elimination of more important information. At the same time, capacity for higher-order thinking, like structuring an argument for a paper, becomes limited.

Planning as a Process

A planning system involves more than recording assignments. Segmenting work by action steps and prioritizing increases a student’s depth of processing. Writing two to three words of reflection after completing each task will help students to consider successes, challenges, and possible alternative strategies.

Ask students for a three-week commitment to a process-based planning approach that is dynamic and flexible. Be straightforward: Explain that you will expect them to invest mental energy, time, and attention to develop a habit.

Help the students to do the following:

1. Create and print out a template in a spreadsheet or document with daily start and end times; three to four categories (e.g., classes, extracurricular, social, and work); and category subsections: action step(s), priority level, completion, and reflection.

2. Transition to planning longer stretches of time as their planning becomes more effective.

3. Color-code urgent steps with highlighter.

4. Choose a digital calendar that enables alerts to signal when to transition to and when to start a task.

5. Track action step completion.

6. Write two to three words reflecting on their experience.

That last step—reflection—is a critical stepping-stone for goal-oriented problem-solving because it’s rooted in self-awareness. Reflection helps students imprint their gains in adapting to change going forward. 

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • 9-12 High School

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