George Lucas Educational Foundation
Executive Functioning Skills

Encouraging Executive Functioning Skill Development in Middle School

A fun multiweek project can support the development of the crucial skills that drive academic success for middle school students.

February 7, 2023
Fly View Productions / iStock

Over the course of my 25-year teaching career in both the public and private sector, I have grown to see that many of the challenges faced in the classroom don't stem from academic, behavioral, or social and emotional sources, but rather from struggles with executive functioning skills (response inhibition, working memory, emotional control, sustained attention, task initiation, planning and prioritization, organization, time management, goal-directed persistence, flexibility, metacognition, stress tolerance).

At my school, we’ve created a course for our middle school students that explicitly focuses on deepening their understanding of these skills and of their importance in daily life. The students engage in self-analysis and practice specific skills in a variety of settings. 

Focus on Student Needs and offer Engaging Activities

Our program includes mixed-grade groupings (sixth, seventh, and eighth graders together), engaging hands-on activities, and a variety of ways for the students to demonstrate their understanding. The class meets once a week for an hour. Each trimester, we redesign the course based on current needs. Our two most successful trimesters included the following two units of study:

1. Teacher passion unit. Each teacher planned a hands-on activity based on a personal passion (crochet, video games, cooking, team building, board games). Students rotated through a series of these six activities, one each week, in mixed-grade groups of 12. 

During each hourlong class, teachers paused the activity at moments appropriate for metacognitive reflection in order to engage the students in discussion about which executive functioning skills were being used. Students kept a reflection journal in which they analyzed their own process throughout each activity and reflected on their strengths and areas for growth. As a final project, students created a video in which they analyzed their executive functioning development. 

2. Carnival unit. We introduced the students to different carnival games (Bingo, Balloon Cup, Roulette Wheel, Dunk Tank, Office Tennis, Cornhole, Cup Flip Tic-Tac-Toe). They each chose a favorite game. Based on their selection, we assigned them to mixed-grade groups to build the games. One teacher was in charge of the logistics committee and supported the students in organizing, advertising, and selling tickets.

Over the course of the trimester, the students worked to design, build, and practice running their game. They reflected on their experience by reading an article about executive functioning skills and made connections with their work. As a final project, they prepared a presentation about the executive functioning skills needed both to create the games and to play them. After receiving feedback during a trial run, they made any necessary improvements in the functionality of the game and the clarity of the presentations. We then held the carnival for parents and for fourth-and fifth-grade students. 

7 Crucial Elements of the Program’s Success 

1. Get teacher buy-in. The first time we ran the class (in 2020), I created executive functioning journals and provided them to the teachers to implement with the students. However, success greatly increased when each teacher developed a session based on their own passion. It gave the teachers creative control and greatly reduced meeting/planning time. For the carnival unit, teachers worked with the carnival games that most engaged them personally, and as a result, they felt ownership over that part of the carnival.

2. Use creative scheduling to prioritize small group size and full team involvement. To have this program work, we knew the groups needed to be as small as possible. Plugging this course into the schedule for all teachers and students during the same period came first, and any other courses and meetings were scheduled around it. 

3. Teachers should model metacognition of the content. We used planning and prioritization by making a trimester-long calendar and sharing it with the students. We explicitly discussed with them how we used our mental flexibility when larger institutional concerns caused changes to our schedule. 

We modeled goal-directed persistence by holding a trial run of the carnival with invited guests who tested out the games, listened to the presentations, and provided feedback before the actual event. We used the language of the course in other areas of the school day, helping the students to make connections and to strengthen their working memories. We have visuals in every classroom with brief definitions of each skill so that teachers and students can refer to them regularly. 

4. Designate time for meetings. Ensuring time for planning the course, reflecting on its progress, and identifying next steps is essential. We set aside 15 minutes of our weekly team meeting for whole-team reflection. The planning committee had a separate hourlong weekly meeting included in our schedules. Administrative support for this prioritization of time use was key for meeting our goals. 

5. Provide balance between theory, practice, and fun. We got students engaged with the theoretical content through the fun activities and carnival games. Also, to introduce the students to executive functioning skills at the beginning of the unit, we created a playlist of relevant existing TikTok videos. Many videos were very relatable to the students and facilitated “aha!” moments about what each associated executive functioning skill entailed. 

6. Reflection is the key. Intentional reflection tools are needed to guide the students to make connections between the theory and the fun. We used reflection journals, small group discussions, and scaffolded presentations.

7. Don’t give up if it doesn’t succeed at first. We continue to revise our program each trimester based on current realities. Scheduling, staffing, and student needs all change and we adapt, but we continue to prioritize the program. 

Creating Meaningful Experiences Is Possible With Little Support

Even in schools where it is prohibitively challenging to find administrative support, control over scheduling, or a team with whom to work, it is still possible to create meaningful experiences of this kind for students.

Teaching about the executive functioning skills could be used as a vocabulary-building exercise in English language arts and then followed up on in writing exercises. In a math class about graphing, students could take one of the readily available quizzes to determine one’s executive functioning strengths and areas for growth, and that data could be graphed and analyzed. These are just two examples. Be creative! The awareness and understanding of these skills have supported positive changes in the ways our students perceive themselves as students and thinkers.

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Filed Under

  • Interest-Based Learning
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • 6-8 Middle School

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