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Exploring 3 Executive Functioning Skills that Impact the Classroom

Everyone in education has heard the phrase "Executive Functioning Skills." Do we really understand what those skills are and how they impact education? Hopefully, we will have a better understanding of what behaviors are associated with three of the skills, how they impact academic progress, and tools to help develop them in the school setting.

Executive functioning skills are cognitive skills that allow us to supervise our own lives. These functioning skills are located in the front part of the brain and are always in development as we grow. They generally mature around 25 years of age and develop when we can fully understand cause-and-effect relationships to regulate our behaviors based on consequences. Prior to this time, children and young adults are displaying behaviors based on their environment and natural instincts versus sculptured or learned behaviors. As teachers, we must be mindful of the fact that children's out-of-school environment has a greater impact on how advanced their executive functioning skills are versus the in-school environment, which is the greatest reason we are experiencing conflict with our students.

#1 - Behaviors Associated with 3 Executive Functioning

  • Impulse Control - Rate of response to certain stimuli

  • Organization - Management of materials

  • Prioritizing - Determining what task to complete based on matter of importance and time

#2 - Impacting Academics

  • Impulse Control - How well a student can control their impulses or rapid-fire activity is largely based on how they must respond in their out-of-school environment. Some students grace our classrooms from situations that require them to have a quick response to stimuli if they are going to be effective members of their groups. Students with high vibrational frequencies or those who must have quick reactions in their environments are often viewed as having AD/HD.

  • Organization - Whether a student is organized is extremely subjective. Everyone does not organize themselves the same way. Students' organizational skills should be based solely on whether they can locate what they need to accomplish the task at hand. Inability to locate materials can cause a delay in completing an assignment or not getting it done at all.

  • Prioritizing - Children are still developing this complex mental skill because whatever comes to their minds is their #1 priority. Failure to prioritize in correct order means a delay in completing an assignment or not getting it done at all. ***Remember "UNDER CONSTRUCTION!"

#3 - Tools for the Classroom - Mindfulness is extremely important when working with anyone, especially children. Teaching students to develop mindfulness to help develop executive functioning skills also benefits teachers as well. Mindfulness helps teachers develop their foresight skills, which are beneficial in recognizing behaviors that need redirecting in improving behaviors.

  • Impulse Control - 3 to 5 Minutes of "Moments of Peace" prior to the beginning of classroom instruction helps students calm down and recollect themselves. This strategy can also be used during transitions from one activity to the next. Playing soft music for the duration of "Moments of Peace" with softly spoken words that convey expectations for the next task helps students "close their minds out" of the previous activities and focus on the task at hand. Teachers can also remind students of 2-3 behavioral expectations that address impulses that are classroom disruptions.

  • Organization - Question - Are you asking your students to be organized for themselves for to benefit you, the teacher? If the answer is to benefit the teacher then you must rethink organization. If the organization is to benefit the student, then we must step back and ask students how they are best organized. Organization is to accomplish two tasks - 1. location needed materials in a timely manner (1-2 minutes); 2. accomplish a task (complete assignments). Once materials have been used to accomplish a task, they must be discarded to prevent students from being overwhelmed. Teachers must decide what is of long-term importance and work from there.

  • Prioritizing - Impulse Control and Organization are directly related to prioritizing. Students must learn what is of importance and needs addressing now. Sometimes a checklist with due dates or times is important. For example, if students are given homework assignments that need to be returned all on the same day, encourage students to complete the assignment for the first class of the day followed by the next class session, etc., etc. If students must prioritize what must be done to complete a task, assist them in analyzing what must be done step-by-step to complete the task. If the task is to be completed independent of adults in a timely manner, then limit steps to 3 for elementary age, 4 for middle school, and 5 for high school. If more steps are needed for the task to be completed, then the assignment should be chunked into pieces with no more than the steps listed above.

Remember, we are all inundated with information, and we as adults struggle with these same three executive functioning skills depending on what is going on in our lives. Our students are no different. They are faced with life challenges and become overwhelmed and unable to function as expected when they are managing their lives. Mindfulness helps our students decrease anxiety, which is a major culprit in students being able to manage their lives. As our students learn to calm down and focus themselves, they learn to see assignments and school as the instruments they need to fulfill their dreams. Likewise, teachers increase their serenity because they have placed the power of self-regulation and life management back in the hands of their students.

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