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Learning Curve

Improving executive function

Helping students learn the benefits of organization and time-management strategies
New York Teacher
A cartoon of a student at his desk in a classroom
Illustration by Olivia Singler

When I was a high school student, nothing pleased me more than sitting down with a blank planner, color-coding my class assignments and creating a detailed to-do list of tasks I could check off as I completed them.

This strategy might not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but it worked for me because I understood that organizing, planning and time management were my strengths. Even if I was daunted by the academic material, I had confidence in my executive function — and it kept me on track.

Executive functioning skills help students pay attention, remember instructions, organize their thoughts, plan ahead and control their impulses. They are skills you almost certainly model and teach regularly in your classroom even if they aren’t explicit in your curriculum.

“Executive function is half the battle with learning,” says Marcia Reidy, a 4th-grade teacher at PS 24 in the Bronx.

Students who struggle with working independently or staying on task likely need support with executive function. So do students who find it hard to transition from one classroom activity to the next or to follow directions in the right order. A chaotic backpack or difficulty keeping track of homework assignments are other signs that a student needs support in this area.

Executive function challenges can also manifest in children who perform well academically. Think of a student who impulsively blurts out the right answer or a student who answers every question on a test correctly — but then immediately loses the paper.

Dr. Thomas Brown, a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in children with high IQs, developed a classic metaphor for understanding executive function: Imagine the complicated processing systems in our brains as an orchestra and executive function as the conductor.

For students who struggle with organization, a teacher’s requirements — like directing students to use a particular color folder or keep papers in a designated place — can feel like unnecessary nitpicking. But you can show students how and why your expectations support learning.

“In my classroom, we have a color-coded system — our math folder is red, math work goes in the red basket — so those of us who aren’t naturally organized have a stepladder to help us get there,” says Reidy.

Reidy notes that kids only have an attention span of eight to 10 minutes, which can quickly get siphoned off on things other than actual learning. “If I’m a kid who is putting all my energy toward finding a worksheet, I’m wasting time and I’m anxious because I’m already behind,” she said. “If I can take away that distraction, I can use every minute for learning and my time management is so much stronger.”

Many executive functioning skills revolve around metacognition — the idea that you understand how your own thought processes work. As an educator, you’re probably accustomed to narrating your thoughts out loud for students. Adding the extra “meta” step of naming what you’re going to o before you do it can help students develop that internal dialogue, too.

“I say, ‘I’m going to think out loud as a mathematician,’ rather than just doing it,” says Reidy.

By explicitly modeling what executive functioning skills look like, you’re also helping students build self-awareness. When you make modifications to support students who are working on active listening or sitting still, for instance, you can help students notice how those scaffolds have helped them work more productively.

“I don’t confiscate cell phones, but I do offer to hold them for students who are getting distracted by them — I tell them, ‘I’ll charge it while you work,’” says Sapphira Hendrix, a math and computer science teacher at Hudson HS of Learning Technologies in Chelsea. “If I have a student who needs to be particularly active, I give them a task — like, ‘Can you help me pass out the calculators?’ — where they can get out of their seats.”

Strong executive functioning skills have obvious benefits not just in school but in life, which can be a powerful motivator for students.

You can encourage your students to practice executive functioning tasks in activities that might be more intrinsically rewarding. A student who struggles to plan out a multi-step essay because writing is challenging may appreciate how they can do better at a favorite game by moving through its stages one by one, for instance.

Not every student needs a meticulously color-coded organizer to be successful. But the benefits of organization and time-management strategies that have become second nature to teachers aren’t always intuitive for students until they are made explicit.

Every time you review your class schedule with students, set a timer during an activity or designate a folder for completed work, you’re helping to strengthen students’ executive function — and making them more adept learners in the process.