Have you ever wondered why students with learning disabilities or behavioral difficulties perform better in some classes, terrible in others, and inconsistent in others? Typically if this is the case in elementary school for a student, most times it only worsens by the secondary level. One truth about executive function is that different profiles of executive function are not equally problematic in different settings (Brown, 2002).
Research also shows that students with developmental executive function weakness generally require far greater adult supervision across grade levels than typical developing peers. (Barkley, 1997, 2006). Therefore these students need strategies that move them to the front of the class so that they are not left behind.
Skills that help students with organization, homework completion, time management, and impulse control are executive functioning skills!
Strategies to Get a Front Seat in the Executive Suite
Although the ultimate goal is for students to learn how to complete tasks in an independent manner, requiring students who may not have the executive skills can prove to be exhausting without first giving them strategies to move in the appointed direction.
Here you will find 7 handy strategies for students who have executive function deficits.
1. Provide Students with a Surrogate Brain while their Frontal Lobe is in the Developmental Stage
This is almost like giving the brain a booster or a head start in the learning process. Consider these strategies as adding artificial flavoring to make it just the right taste of learning!
- Give one-on-one instruction after group or whole group lesson.
- Provide guided practice as you teach the lesson.
- Start homework in class so that students have an opportunity to ask any questions. During this time, the teacher will demonstrate the expectation of the homework task.
- Use a project planning form for long-term projects.
- Sit with the student to plan out the time projected for each task.
- Use a projector like My Time Matters.
- Post visual reminders in students’ immediate line of sight, whether it is on their desk, on the wall, or on the board. This includes writing strategies, reading strategies, math formulas, and more.
- Offer Social Mentoring, in which a trained adult provides the students with severe executive deficits with an adult or more socially skilled peer for specific periods of the day to serve as their social coach.
2. Teach Students Skills in an Explicit and Systematic Way
- Be clear about when tasks are due by listing dates on the school’s LMS and class page.
- At the beginning of each month, have students write dates on a monthly calendar of any assessment or due date you will require.
- Teach the material to the whole group/small group, pause to have discussions throughout this learning experience for collaboration and discussion to allow students to have a voice.
- Have a visual representation of the material you may be teaching on the board or on an anchor chart when possible.
- When reading stories or novels, have an auditory version for students to follow along if needed (Learning Ally, TeacherTube, Youtube, SOAR and look for immersive readers on websites).
- With vocabulary, have students act out the words using the pantomime game or play Win Lose or Draw so that movement is involved rather than just having the students write the word and definition, follow up with a writing activity as an application exercise.
- Build student comprehension of a text read aloud to the class by stopping at every page or two to have fast-paced role-playing, discuss the key plots for element story elements of that story, and also have students discuss with a partner or partners.
- Provide students with comprehension questions to the answer before they read the question and then stop to explicitly discuss the answers and questions as a group or as a whole.
Let’s Zoom to the Front of the Room →→
3. Teach Skills in a Real-Life Context
- Have students track how much time it takes them to complete a task completely undisturbed by using a timer or an app like Forest then write their start and finish time. (This means multitasking is off the table.)
- Model prereading strategies (For example read an article from Newsela, your local newspaper, etc.) Afterward, organize and summarize information by using a KWL chart.
- Explicitly model the writing process by using a model of what an expert, novice, and beginner level looks like.
- Use the Stop & List strategy to organize and sequence students’ thoughts while writing.
4. Help with the Working Memory Overload
You might hear students say things like, “I can’t keep all my thoughts in my head” or “everything you’re saying is just too much, and it makes my head hurt.” These are signs of memory overload. Here are a few useful tools:
- Encourage students to use sticky notes to remember tasks in each class to avoid memory overload by the end of the day, transferring this information to one centralized place before the midpoint in their day, if possible.
- Use apps like Forest to avoid distractions while working on a task.
- Break tasks into smaller tasks. In writing, have students start with the Prewrite process. Pause and take time to conference with students before starting the planning and outlining process.
- Use rubrics and a checklist in all writing tasks for visual and written reminders and as a step-by-step guide of teacher expectations.
The stronger your working memory, the less work your brain must take on when you encounter new challenges. Russell Barkley calls our working memory our brain’s GPS.
5. Provide Repeated Opportunities for Guided Practice
- Using guided oral reading practice exercises, because many students with executive function skills find reading boring and laborious.
- Using writing templates, math templates, reading diagrams throughout the year.
- Present new skills in a spiraling manner, and keep reviewing skills.
- Role-playing and creating demonstrations of class rules once a week.
6. Develop Routines and Stick to them
Kiss your brain with consistency! The brain loves predictability.
- When students enter your learning space, always have a calendar visible for students to see with upcoming assessments and due dates of assigned tasks.
- Set aside the same day each week to plan out the week on their personal digital or paper calendar (include the student’s extracurricular activities and family events). This will look different for each student. As a teacher, I create a Google Calendar for the class and share it. Students add their extracurricular and family events to this calendar.
- At the beginning of the year develop a system for homework and project turn-in (this includes where things are turned in). Try to stick to this and not tweak this too much. Keep the same routines so that students know where to find things.
- Try to arrange for your test to be on a specific day of the week if possible. From a school-wide approach, this looks like :
Test Day → Subject
Monday → Math
Tuesday → Science
Wednesday → Social Studies
Thursday → English/Reading
Friday → Spelling
- Have the schedule for the day printed on the board when students walk in each day.
- Develop classroom-wide organizational systems such as English items on blue paper, Math items on white paper, Reading on lavender paper, etc.
- Keep binder dividers in sync with color-coding and in a specific order school-wide.
- The heading for papers should be the same school-wide (Decide if students need a Name, Date, Class Sec and Topic and whether this should be on the left or right side of the paper).
- Perform binder checks so that students know that the organization of the binder is important.
7. Allow Students to Just Be Human In Your Presence
- Open up class with check-ins. Take time to ask each student how they are doing when they arrive at class. I use my own emojipresssions to do this, along with temperature charts.
- While students are working on a task, playing calming music with interactive backgrounds on a projection board when possible helps to set the mood for learning and settles the central nervous system.
- Practice simple meditation. It is one of the most effective ways to access the use of your executive functions. This helps students who need assistance with self-awareness and it stabilizes the nervous system. Calm app and Headspace have many features for the classroom.
- Use mindfulness techniques. Use YouTube for yoga and Thai Chi to do quick exercises when you notice students need to self-regulate.
- Allow Brain Breaks. Students enjoy having dance parties to rejuvenate the dendrites in the brain. GoNoodle has a variety of options to choose from.
- Allow students to share in your mistakes. Say aloud to them that you have made a mistake and that you are frustrated. (For example, “Girls and boys, I have no idea why I keep spelling that word incorrectly. This frustrates me. Are there any ideas for how I can help myself break this cycle?”) Start the discussion about how you handled the situation and how you could have handled the situation differently. Students will begin to view you as a person who is Just Human and gain greater respect for you. This also creates a safe space for students as you make your flaws transparent to them!