Guiding Students to Improve Executive Functioning Skills

Executive function needs become more complex among high school students as their life roles evolve.  Too often, chaos results as they use self-management approaches they have outgrown, like keeping track of their assignments in their heads.

If our students understand three key components of executive functioning, they are better prepared to avoid the stress of urgency:

  • Flexible thinking enables the use of critical thinking and problem-solving to increase future effectiveness, like being open to a new approach for solving a word problem.
  • Self-regulation supports students’ ability to persist in the face of challenges, like using self-talk to overcome frustration.
  • Working memory enhances their ability to analyze and evaluate while planning, like referring to a previous assignment to estimate the time needed to complete an upcoming one.

Stimulate Flexible Thinking

High school students can overlook in-depth processing—teenagers are, after all, notorious for prioritizing fun without considering the consequences. They also tend to resist new, unfamiliar approaches to learning that they perceive as risky. Teachers can encourage students to identify ineffective thinking and help them brainstorm alternative strategies.

When students list and analyze their responsibilities, they provide themselves with a concrete reference for processing. That way, they tend to limit impulsive or emotionally based decision-making.

Ask students to do the following:

1. List six to eight current and upcoming tasks.

2. Divide their list into three categories according to due date: one day, two days, or future.

3. Change the categories to one day, one week, and one month as their abilities to prioritize and plan improve.

4. Identify one action step for each task to encourage students to segment work into manageable chunks—for example, “outline English essay” or “revise history notes.”

Limitations of Self-Regulation

Students often think of self-regulation as a matter of sheer willpower, but often they need to think of it more as a limited resource—as a well that can run dry when overused.

Reassure students that self-regulation is like a muscle that responds to exercise: Well-managed short-term fatigue leads to long-term strengthening. Help them understand that when they prioritize tasks, they’re exercising their self-regulation skills, which is making them stronger every time, through repetition.

Stephen Covey’s time management matrix provides a pathway for identifying and prioritizing urgent versus important tasks. It also helps identify distractions and time wasters.

Working Memory Conservation

Working memory is an underappreciated stage of information processing. Information is held, retrieved, and manipulated, but we give minimal thought to efficiency.

Details, such as remembering assignments and appointment times, tend to overwhelm working memory capacity and lead to the elimination of more important information. At the same time, capacity for higher-order thinking, like structuring an argument for a paper, becomes limited.

Planning as a Process

A planning system involves more than recording assignments. Segmenting work by action steps and prioritizing increases a student’s depth of processing. Writing two to three words of reflection after completing each task will help students to consider successes, challenges, and possible alternative strategies.

Ask students for a three-week commitment to a process-based planning approach that is dynamic and flexible.

Excerpted from “Guiding Students to Improve Executive Functioning Skills” in Edutopia. Read the full article online for more details, including the recommended steps for teaching students a process-based planning approach.

Source: Edutopia | Guiding Students to Improve Executive Functioning Skills, | ©2022 George Lucas Educational Foundation

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