In her final blog post of the series, educator and author Sarah Kesty shares some valuable tips for educators wanting to teach executive functioning in the classroom. Read on to see how you can bring EF into your classroom and beyond.

Where do you go from here? You know executive function has incredible importance to student success, and you’ve begun to notice its role in your life as well. When you’re ready to teach executive function, there are many approaches. Here are the two that have proven most effective with my students:

  1. Explicitly teach a micro skill, using a mini-lesson. You can use a structure similar to some of the reading and writing lessons you may teach, where you instruct for a few minutes on a pre-determined teaching point. Don’t just “wing it;” plan these lessons ahead of time to ensure effectiveness and clarity. Executive function skills come naturally to some, so it’s easy to assume they will be easy to teach. Don’t fall for this logic. These skills are layered like onions; you peel away one only to reveal another which may be lacking.

A structure I like to use follows this general outline: 

  1. Introduce the skill with a story (our brains think in stories, and it’s a great way to increase engagement and take advantage of the emotion-memory connection!) 
  2. Teach the skill explicitly and with as much simplicity as you can. State “I want to teach you…” or something similar, and repeat your teaching phrase a few times.
  3. Provide examples and have students try it out, with your guidance and the support of the whole group format. 
  4. Ask students to try the skill on their own and remind them of indicators that the skill could be helpful (“When you get a big assignment, you can try XYZ skill…” or “You’ll know you need to XYZ skill when you notice…”)

An abbreviated example lesson:

Skill: prioritizing use of time based on point value of an assignment (notice how “micro” the teaching points are?) 

Introduce with a story: (Usually a fabrication or stretch of the truth) Last week, I had a student make this (show beautiful illustration), but he still earned an F on his project! He was so upset and confused. But, with a little detective work, he realized why: he forgot to plan using points! His whole project was worth 100 points, but the illustration was worth only 10! Even though he did a great job, he earned 10% of the points—that’s like a dime out of a dollar! Today I want to teach you that you can plan what to work on first and for the most time based on points! If you think of points like money, it makes this strategy really easy! Guided practice: project an anonymous grade report for the class to see. Have students find where point values are listed, and prompt them to consider the points as dollars. Which assignment would they complete first? Why?

2. Once you’ve taught the skill, coach its generalization and use with question strategies. After a lesson, when you’re supporting small groups or individual students, keep the skills you’ve taught in mind. You can use questions to help students recognize the need for the skill on their own. Equally important, you can use questions to help students reflect on the skill’s utility—ensuring students will use the skill outside of your presence and apply it because they value the skill, not just to please you. Some question stems I like are:

  • Some people like to…
  • Have you considered…
  • Tell me more about…
  • What’s your plan for….
  • How will you be sure to…
  • What’s your strategy for…
  • Let’s practice what XYZ will look like

Executive function skills are as vital as they are prolific; once you start teaching them, you’ll find an endless list of more skills to teach. But don’t let this intimidate you. Supporting executive function growth is gifting your students with some of the most powerful tools for life!

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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