For students to succeed academically, it takes more than simply knowing what to study—they need to have the ability to learn. This starts with students understanding Executive Function (EF), and the essential role it plays in achieving desired results—from aceing a test to winning an art contest. As teachers and parents, it’s our responsibility to teach children what EF is and why it’s important for their personal growth and success.
EF is Essential
The more developed EF skills are, the easier it is to generate creative ideas to solve a problem and evaluate which solutions are appropriate to use, given the situation. This process involves attention, flexibility, problem-solving, and prioritizing—some of the core components of EF—that develop in middle childhood.
Research shows that there is a distinct link between EF and creativity—those with more developed EF tend to be more creative. Traditional education approaches relying on repetitive memorization of facts do not always foster creativity in our students. This could be a missed opportunity to help actively promote EF development and learning in schools. We can help promote these skills by intentionally incorporating EF into our classroom culture through direct instruction as well as daily teachable moments.
Getting Started with EF
There are some simple starting points when introducing EF to students, starting with using relevant and engaging materials to encourage meaningful conversations.
For example, you might use Flipgrid to pose a question to a group of students and ask for thoughts via video. This promotes individual engagement, and allows time for processing and producing a more reflective answer. In the beginning, you may have to spend extra time modeling appropriate answers, but as you continue they will get it and you’ll both enjoy the answers they come up with.
For younger students, we recommend setting aside 30-45 minutes per week for direct Social Emotional Learning (SEL) instruction, which is easily paired with EF training. Ten minutes per day is a good goal, and using morning meeting or circle time is a good place to start. Remember, any time spent on EF skill training is recaptured later because much less time is then spent on dealing with behavior issues.
Be sure to inform parents about adding EF into your programming; kids are often great communicators of the “new stuff” they are doing in class, and you’ll want parents to not only be aware but have “buy-in” on the effort. The most important thing to keep in mind is establishing a common language across the entire school community so that everyone is clear on definitions and what is expected.
Strengthening an EF Culture
When working to change or adapt a building culture, it takes time, effort, and oftentimes, a change in mindset. The following may help as you begin the journey:
- Establishing a common language about the brain learning and its importance to academic and SEL success
- Developing strong routines and clear expectations
- Incorporating interdisciplinary EF activities into your curriculum and class time
- Using reflective conversations when reviewing successes and challenges with students, colleagues, and leadership
- Allowing for, acknowledging, and reframing “failures” as opportunities
EF & SEL
Students who are happier, less stressed, and socially supported can think more clearly and creatively and use their EF skills more effectively. Creating a positive climate in the classroom can help reduce boredom, frustration, stress, and anxiety, which allows for more opportunities for students to use their EF skills throughout the school day. Try one or more of the following:
- Encourage students to identify and label their emotions and help them develop strategies that allow them to stay in a “cool” EF state
- Promote perspective-taking
- Allow time for students to share personal experiences
- Plan and allow for creative and personalized ways to document, express, communicate, and demonstrate learned content
- Help students recognize the connection between emotions and decision-making
No matter how schools are educating this year, teachers and students are facing unheard-of challenges. Executive Function can help ease this transition and foster positive skill development.
Need help getting started?
Register for EF 201: Understanding Executive Function
And for those of you ready to make a bigger leap?
Register for EF 301: Managing Your Classroom Through the Lens of Executive Function