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Using Technology to Support 10 Executive Functioning Skills

Teachers can use a variety of digital resources to foster the skills students need for long-term success.

October 21, 2021
MIddle school teacher in classroom with students
Marmaduke St. John / Alamy

The challenges we have faced when returning to our campuses this year are more than just academic. Some of our students haven’t been in a classroom for almost two years. Academic progress and social and cognitive development may be substantially affected, and executive functioning skills are one such impacted area. Teachers already face the arduous task of educating future generations. Because we are charged with meeting academic and social needs, it’s important for our approach to be more intentional to support cognitive skills.

Plan to Develop 10 Critical Executive Function Skills

Teaching is a social endeavor. Interaction is essential for the transmission of knowledge from one person to another. In addition to crucial social interactions with classmates, far-reaching implications result when students can’t benefit from daily interaction with teachers. Students returning to school to join their friends and classmates this year have a steeper hill to climb. 

Teachers can address and help students develop some of the most urgent and critical executive functioning skills:

1. Planning: The ability to figure out how to accomplish goals

2. Organization: The ability to build and maintain a system that keeps materials and plans orderly

3. Time management: Having an accurate understanding of how long tasks will take and using time wisely

4. Task initiation: Independently starting tasks when needed

5. Working memory: The mental process that allows us to hold information in our minds while working with it

6. Metacognition: Being aware of what we know and using that information to help us learn

7. Self-control: The ability to regulate ourselves, including thoughts, actions, and emotions

8. Attention: Being able to focus on a person or task for a period of time and shifting focus when needed

9. Perseverance: The ability to stick with a task and not give up, even when it becomes challenging

10. Flexibility: The ability to adapt to new situations and deal with change

If we can nurture these aspects of executive functioning, we can better ensure that students have the capacity and skills to flourish in school and life.

Strengthen Students’ Working Memory

Executive functioning skills in the category of working memory include retrieving information from long-term memory, internalization and transfer of understanding, processing information, and varied instructional modalities. Students can strengthen their long-term memory by using the strategy of visualization and active note-taking during lessons.

Notability is a practical technology resource that can be quickly and efficiently integrated. It’s commonly referred to as a “whiteboard app” because it acts similarly to a whiteboard where the teacher or learners can draw or write. Notability provides additional capabilities to the learner by incorporating multimedia, text, and screen recording. Educreations and ShowMe are similar apps.

When a student demonstrates their learning, internalization and transfer of understanding is more assured. For instance, students can use the app ChatterPix to narrate or describe their knowledge of a concept in a fun way using digital puppets or any image they select. The application records audio and imbeds it with the image while moving the mouth of the chosen character in the picture. FlipGrid also allows students to record themselves and share with their teacher or classmates.

Sometimes, chunking information will help students process it. Google Slides, Padlet, Trello, and Mind Maps also make it easy for teachers to create a step-by-step process or break down a complicated task into smaller pieces, so that students don’t get overwhelmed.

Teachers can integrate a variety of instructional modalities—such as multisensory stimuli—to support students in demonstrating mastery of skills within a lesson. iBooks and iMovie support several modalities (with multimedia that include sound, images, graphics, text, and video) that allow students to consume and create. Additionally, Adobe Spark provides a platform where students can take advantage of easy creation tools using multimedia to demonstrate their understanding.

Support Students’ Flexible Thinking

In the category of flexible thinking, executive functioning skills such as planning, metacognition, organization, time management, and auditory preferences are essential considerations in lesson creation.

When students understand how they process information or have support in planning how to accomplish a task, they can achieve tremendous learning success. Providing students with step-by-step instructions, with which they control the pace, is an advantage for teachers who have a classroom with students whose needs are quite varied. Teachers can use YouTube to create a channel, upload their recordings, or curate others already made for students to view at their own pace. Another practical resource is iorad—a tutorial builder that allows students to control the rate of instruction.

Time management is often a high-priority skill that can be strengthened by posting schedules, agendas, and graphic organizers. Tools that support this skill exist on Google Classroom integrated with Google Calendar. By organizing the workflow of assignments and providing students with access to a schedule created in Google Calendar, teachers can quickly help keep students on track and organized. Apps like Remind and Trello can help students prioritize tasks and send reminders for important events.

It’s important for students to be able to internalize information based on need or preference. For example, some students internalize information more efficiently when they hear text read to them. The text-to-speech features in the Google Chrome extension Read&Write can accommodate students who have an auditory preference.  Students can also take advantage of the speech-to-text feature “voice typing” by using the accessibility tool in Google Docs.

The present challenges are teachable moments. The good news is that teachers are already deploying many resources and strategies to support executive functioning skills. We can be more mindful of moments where they will fit seamlessly into our instruction.

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