George Lucas Educational Foundation
Brain-Based Learning

Supporting Executive Function Skills by Asking Questions

Teachers can boost middle school students’ self-management skills by using questions to get their mental gears turning.

December 3, 2021
Michael Morgenstern / The iSpot

Jumping on a giant trampoline as an adult is usually humbling and pretty awkward. Your trampoline muscles need some practice before they’re ready for full use. Our students are having a parallel experience; after over a year away from physical school, many of them may need support in developing their executive function or “studenting” skills for doing well in person. Executive function (EF) skills are brain-based management abilities that encompass a wide range of future skills like planning, organizing, self-regulation (including managing attention and emotions), learning, and memory.

These skills are also learned at home when children do things like household chores. Reinforcing executive function at school helps students’ brains understand the cueing system that activates the use of a particular skill. For example, a student needs to understand environmental cues in order to engage with self-regulation tools, and these cues will differ at home and at school.

Executive Function Skills Support Academic Success

Self-management skills are often the secret sauce of school success. Kids who soar at school are often those who have the most honed EF skill sets. Being an excellent writer, for example, isn’t enough. It’s important for students to demonstrate that they can manage time to write, chunk writing tasks into parts, manage attention to see an essay through, remember editing strategies, and more. Empowering students with these skills can boost academic performance, since grades and assessments rely on executive function as a baseline for demonstrating mastery.

Virtual school pushed students to learn self-management tools, like getting to class without auditory bell prompts and reducing distractions to support their focus. Now, students may need more time to develop the studenting skills required for in-person learning. Knowing how to identify and encourage developing studenting skills is a key component to our educational rebound.

Replace Directions With Thought-Provoking Questions

If you’ve ever heard one student coach another, you’ve probably realized that they’re parroting you. As teachers, we give lots of the same directions. Replacing these directions with mid- and then low-level supportive questions can help pass the onus of navigating the day to students, developing their future-skills executive functions.

For example, the directive “Please take out your book” could be replaced with mid-level support questions like “What do you need to be ready for reading?” or “What do you picture on your desk during this time?” A low-level support question could be “Do you need 45 or 65 seconds to get ready?” You could even a tap the desk, signaling that something needs to be out.

There’s no single right way to do this; the idea is that you’re planning and adjusting the levels of support you offer so that students are gradually assuming the responsibility (similar to gradual release strategy for academic skills and tasks).

Teach Students to Question and Coach Themselves

Whenever I design a lesson, I hear the voice of my mentor teacher coaching me to consider, “What’s the biggest takeaway you want every student to learn?” It’s an automatic audio track that plays whenever I’m planning a lesson. Like coaches and mentor teachers, classroom teachers can coach students to prompt themselves with questions or reminders for repeating tasks.

For example, in planning a longer project or essay, a teacher can show students how to do the following:

  • Question what the steps will be, by either visualizing or noting each “scene” as a step
  • Consider what materials are needed
  • Identify when to do each step
  • Offer tips for how to remember what to do

Students who need deeper support can have a written list of these questions to access in times of planning. The idea is to create a format to make the student invisible and thinking skills visible. In this way, teachers can augment students’ developing executive function skills.

Use 6 Problem-Solving ‘Magic’ Questions

There are some great go-to questions for teachers who want to help develop learners’ studenting skills but aren’t yet automatic in their questioning techniques. These magic questions include:

  1. What do you notice?
  2. What parts do you understand?
  3. What do you think you might need right now?
  4. How can you tell?
  5. Where could you look for that information?
  6. How will you remember to use that strategy or take that action?

When teachers ask these questions regularly, students get used to hearing them, and they can be applied automatically as students solve problems throughout their day. Teachers can also reply with these questions when students ask things like “Where is that assignment?” or “What do I need to do?” Think of how many times the students’ questions for us are related to processing the task, rather than the task or its content. What a gift for students to be able to tackle that type of thinking on their own.

The Good News for Teachers

This isn’t one more thing on your ever-growing list. These skills can be supported and extended by making small shifts, not additions, to your instruction. Replacing directions with questions can help increase students’ awareness of patterns and routines, releasing the onus of self-management to the students. Coaching students to notice the executive function demands of assignments can empower them to independently seek strategies when approaching their work.

If all else fails, you can lean on those function magic questions, which are sure to get students’ brain “muscles” flexing. Empowering our kids with multiple tools for studenting will reduce their barriers to growth and smooth out some of the bumps of getting through the school day, for students and teachers.

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  • Brain-Based Learning
  • Teaching Strategies
  • 6-8 Middle School

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