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Executive Functioning: Defined, Supported…and Maintained!

In the classroom, the resource room, and in what we read online, there are frequent references to the importance of executive functioning skills for academic and personal success.  It turns out executive functioning skills are much more than simply organization skills!

Executive functioning skills are brain-based skills required for all individuals to effectively execute, perform tasks and solve problems.  The executive functioning gurus, Dr. Peg Dawson and Dr. Richard Guare, identify eleven executive functioning skills.  Here are the top key skills for school success listed in developmental order: 

  1. Working memory: Keeping information in mind, while performing complex tasks. Drawing on past learning and applying it to the situation at hand. 
  2. Flexibility: Thinking about something in more than one way, finding different strategies to approach a problem, switching gears, changing schedules, or understanding two meanings of a word. 
  3. Sustained attention: Attention to a task despite distraction, fatigue, or boredom.
  4. Task initiation: Starting projects in a timely manner without procrastination.
  5. Planning/prioritizing: Creating a road map to meet goals and deciding what is important to focus on.
  6. Organization: Creating and maintaining systems to keep track of materials and information.
  7. Time management: The capacity to estimate and allocate time and stay within time limits and deadlines. 
  8. Goal-directed persistence: Having a goal, and following through without being put off by competing distractions/interests.
  9. Metacognition: Self-monitoring, self-evaluating, and taking a bird’s-eye view of how to problem-solve.

This is an extensive list! It’s built upon the assumption that every individual, young or old,  exhibits a wide variety of executive functioning strengths and weaknesses.  Not to mention that it takes on average 20-25 years for these skills to fully develop! Here are some popular methods to boost executive functioning skills.

Visualization and self-talk: Working memory allows students in math class to “see” the numbers in their heads and on an English test, it allows us to read a text, hold onto information and use it to answer questions. Practice visualization. Make a movie in your mind and see yourself performing each step of the task. Visualization should be paired with self-talk.  Repeat instructions! Say the steps out loud and boost your working memory.  Visualization, rehearsing and self-talk have the added bonus of also impacting cognitive flexibility.

Digital and physical systems: Put organization systems in place early, revisit and revise every four weeks. Set up a quiet, equipped, at-home workspace with school supplies, good lighting, and storage. Set up school binders with a duplicate system at home, divided and labeled by subject for completed units. Map the backpack!  Choose compartments for supplies, write it on your ‘map’ and keep supplies in the same place all year. Set up a Google drive folder with files for each subject. Title your Google docs and make sure to place work in the correct folder.  Memorize passwords and practice logging into Google classroom from multiple devices, including your phone. Spend time understanding how each teacher sets up their Google classroom, assignments, and methods for “turning work in.”

Write it down, rank it and do worst first!: Writing things down is a huge boost for EF skills. Including writing down homework and instructions in your agenda immediately when assigned. It also includes To-Do Lists – every day! To-do lists help identify work that needs to be done. Each task should be ranked in order of urgency and difficulty.  Students are often tempted to do easier assignments first, and when the time comes to tackle difficult work, they are fatigued.  Use the motto: “Worst first!”

Timers, time bandits, and brain breaks: Have you heard, “This will just take me 5 minutes, Mom!”? Many students set aside too little time for assignments because they have an unrealistic sense of how long tasks take. Add a column to your daily to-do list for estimated vs. actual time.  Estimate, set a timer, do the task, and compare!  Students will quickly understand how long homework actually takes and learn to manage time effectively! Be aware of and manage sneaky time bandits that have a huge impact on productivity including phones, computers, and time in the kitchen making snacks. Clear your workspace and put your phone on airplane mode. Timed and screenless brain breaks for a maximum of 10 minutes per break help students sustain attention and work efficiently! Good time management skills help students work smarter, not harder! 

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