In the second post of her three-part series, special education teacher Sarah Kesty continues to discuss executive functioning and critical skills teachers can mindfully address with students. Her final blog post of the series will make recommendations on how teachers can structure their mini-lessons to help coach students’ executive function development. Read on to learn more about EF!

You may have spent the last few weeks aware of executive function’s presence. You notice that it’s what you rely on to plan your day and pace your lessons. You see your students use it to manage their attention and pack their backpacks. And, you realize that some of your students really struggle with it. So, where do you go from here?

It’s easy to fall into the vortex of internet research and feel incredibly overwhelmed by the vastness of executive function. Sure, you can categorize it into six main areas (planning, organization, attention and focus, mental flexibility, emotional regulation, and impulse control), and that’s a good place to start. But knowing what to teach, when to teach it, and how to peel back the layers involved can be pretty tricky. Here are some recommendations for when you’re ready to mindfully address executive function with your students:

  1. Use the calendar as a prompt: The school year will bring its own demands on students’ executive function. Fresh from summer, students will be leaning on their attention and focus as well as impulse control to meet the “sit quietly” requirements of school; this could be a great time to illuminate some “hacks” for their skill sets. Before testing, students may need some lessons on mental flexibility and emotional regulation, to deal with both the schedule changes and frustration tolerance associated with multiple assessments. And at grading periods, you may want to have some tough love about “earning” grades (empowered) rather than being “given” grades (victimized), in order for students to use their marks as tools for both reflection and planning ahead for the new grading period.
  2. Envision your frustrations and listen to your “shoulds”: Sometimes the best place to start is the origin of your biggest annoyances. Think of your frustrations from the day as well as what your ideal day would look like; often you will find that the bridge between the two visions is the missing set of executive function skills. Additionally, if you’ve told your class 1,345 times daily they should stop talking during lecture (or remember to write down homework, or plan ahead for longer assignments), yet the problem continues, you may need to break down some ideas for the missing skills, as your students are showing you they are not yet able to perform in the way you’re asking.
  3. Think backwards from adulthood: Successful adults are not always those who are the smartest or best looking. Successful adults are those with strong executive function skills—with an awareness of and strategies to address their weaknesses. If you’re at a loss for which skills to teach, think about your day and the executive function skills you use the most. For teachers, we tend to rely a lot on planning—we probably have a lot of strategies to share. For most adults, organization plays an important role in making “adulting” go smoothly. Are you directly teaching the mental background for organizing (maybe using a think aloud strategy like, “hmm…this paper is important. Where can I put it so I don’t lose it and see it again tonight?”) or, are you simply directing students to “put the paper in your red folder”?

The difference between illuminating the mental processes and doing the thinking for your students is incredibly important.

If your brain feels tired, you’re in good company! Executive function goes deep in complexity and importance! You’ll likely come away from this article with a solid list of skills you may want to teach your students. In the last of this blog series, I’ll share with you some ways to structure your mini-lessons as well as some question stems you can use to coach your students’ executive function development.

Sarah Kesty

Sarah Kesty teaches special education at a middle school in Chula Vista, California. She is a passionate advocate for people of all abilities and author of the children’s book Everyone Has Something: Together We Can. Sarah writes and speaks for education and disability organizations. She is on the advisory board for the Charcot-Marie-Tooth Association, helping parents navigate the school system for children with CMT. Sarah loves researching and innovating, and she specializes in executive functioning, ADHD, and learning disabilities. She lives in San Diego with her husband, rescued cat, and soon, chickens!

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