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Science For All

The Forgotten Factor

Executive Functioning and Success in the Classroom

Imagine this: You worked tirelessly over the summer creating new opportunities to benefit students and help build independence and responsibility. Maybe you created a retake form or an outline for lab reports. But as the year progresses, you find that students aren’t taking advantage of their resources. You’re baffled: Why aren’t they going to your website, finding the appropriate resources, and completing them according to the directions?

At times, we catch ourselves or our colleagues saying things such as, “They must be lazy.” This seems like an easy way to rationalize this behavior, but that doesn’t make it right. Through reflection, conversations with students, and experimentation with other methods, we’ve discovered that the real reason is simply because their frontal lobes aren’t fully developed. Many experts believe that executive functioning skills—the skills that encompass our mental control and self-regulation—are controlled by the frontal lobe (DiTullio 2018). Since all humans are born without fully developed brains, children are not born with these skills, and may not develop them as fully as others over time (DiTullio 2018).

Executive functioning defined

Numerous work-related skills fall under the executive functioning umbrella, including organization, time management, work completion rate, attention to task, emotional regulation, empathy, self-awareness, and more. In addition, executive functioning skills are responsible for understanding the consequences of one’s actions. No wonder cognitive capability isn’t the determining factor of student success in the classroom. It doesn’t matter how intelligent a student may be; if students don’t have the skills to complete a task effectively and in a timely manner, their performance will not reflect their ability (Team 2019; Executive Function Skills, n.d.).

Helpful tips for the classroom

Below you will find helpful tips to create a classroom structure that supports students with executive functioning needs.

  • Use a teacher- or student-developed materials checklist. This strategy empowers students to be more independent while managing tasks because all that the teacher has to say is, “Have you checked the list of what you need for class?” To save transition time, include a list of the materials students need for class that day on your front board (DiTullio 2018). Early in the year set the expectation that it is the students’ responsibility to check the board and take out the necessary materials right away.
  • Display a daily and/or class schedule, and keep it consistent. In addition to posting materials students will need for class that day, post an “agenda” of what students will be doing in class. Students thrive on routine, so keep the structure of your class the same each day as often as possible. For example, perhaps on a typical day, your students complete an opener, you present the day’s lesson, students move into a learning activity, and then you wrap up with a closing activity (such as an exit slip). When your students know what to expect each day, they’ll use more of their brainpower to understand the content of the lesson, rather than trying to figure out what they’re supposed to be doing at any given time (DiTullio 2018).
  • Keep directions concise, print/post them in an easy-to-view space, and have students repeat them back to you. Just like us, students’ attention will begin to wane if they’re “talked at” for too long. This is especially true for students who have executive functioning needs because of their difficulties with organizing and prioritizing massive amounts of information in their brains. Because of this, these students miss important pieces of directions and will often be confused, causing them to complete parts of or entire assignments incorrectly. To avoid this, make sure your directions are short, written in student-friendly language, and are posted in a clearly visible location that students can revisit as needed (such as Google Classroom or a board in your classroom).
  • A word of caution with written instructions: We’ve both worked with educators who have included an entire paragraph of directions for assignments, and then were understandably frustrated when their students didn’t follow any of it. The overwhelming amount of information puts students’ brains into cognitive overload. As a result, students take the path of least resistance and skip the directions. It’s essential to be intentional about how we visually structure these directions and resources so that students can navigate and use them more easily. See Figure 1 for an example of complicated directions that were rewritten and reformatted to be more student-friendly.
  • Last, check for understanding by asking students to tell you what they should be doing during class. This will allow you to gauge whether students understand the directions. If they don’t understand, prompt them to go back and check the directions (Morin 2019). 
  • Use various strategies to guide students to problem solve. Solving problems within the classroom can sometimes be a complex task. With so many of our students’ materials existing “in the Cloud” on their devices, finding the resources they need to clarify their understanding of the task at hand can make the process more difficult (DiTullio 2018. Therefore, when you have a student who either comes to you looking for answers or struggles to start the assignment, try one of the approaches in Figure 2. 
  • Chunk assignments and include mini–due dates. Our experience has taught us that when students with executive functioning needs are presented with a multistep project, they are more likely to complete it successfully when we’ve broken the larger project into shorter pieces, each with its own due date. The reason? These students have difficulty breaking larger tasks down into actionable steps on their own, and even more trouble prioritizing them. Include a section on a project description that gives students a piece of the project to complete by a certain date. Then, hold students accountable for completing each step by counting the completion of each part of the project as a homework assignment. This will encourage all students to make meaningful progress on an assignment over time, rather than waiting until the last minute to do it. Once students get used to doing this, you’ll find that you may be able to gradually release responsibility of the chunking and intermittent due-date creation to them (DiTullio 2018).
  • Grade based on completed work. Many students with executive functioning needs also have deficits in their working memory. Working memory is defined as the “ability to hold onto new information so we can turn around and use it in some way” and allows us to hold on to information long enough so that we can use it to complete a task (Rosen 2019). Students who struggle with working memory will have difficulty completing assignments at the same rate as their peers. As a result, you may often find that their work is incomplete or they need extended time to complete it. If extended time isn’t an option, another option is to grade them only on what they have completed, and not penalize them for the work they didn’t complete. However, if you choose to employ this, be sure to directly tell the student what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Ask the student, “Do you feel like it’s hard for you to complete the assignments I give you in the time I provide for you to complete them in class?” The student will likely be honest and admit their struggle with you. Tell them that you’re only going to grade them on the work they completed in order to remove time as a stressor. The student will likely be able to put more effort and time into completing the work well, rather than rushing through everything just to say it’s done (Morin 2019).
  • Use a timer. One major challenge students with executive functioning difficulties face is staying focused and working at an appropriate rate. A timer can be helpful in this situation. Try setting it for a short snippet of time: five minutes maximum. Any longer, and there’s too much time between check-ins for this strategy to be effective. When the timer goes off, it’s a reminder for the student to self-assess and determine whether they have been working productively or whether their attention has wandered. This promotes self-awareness and gives students a chance to get back on track. When you hear it go off, it’s your reminder to check in with that student and ensure that they are working effectively and to answer any questions they may have (Lynch 2018). (A quick disclaimer: This strategy is not effective for all students. Some students will dislike timers because they feel it puts added pressure on them or draws attention to them. It doesn’t hurt to have a conversation with the student prior to implementing the use of a timer to determine their feelings about them. If they are worried about being singled out in front of their classmates, have them set a timer on their device and wear earbuds. That way, they are the only ones hearing the timer and can use it as a mental check-in.)
  • Accept that you will need to repeat yourself. It’s important to know that even with all of these strategies, there will be times when you have to repeat yourself. Patience is key for students that struggle with executive functioning. Remember, they aren’t purposefully choosing not to submit their homework or complete assignments. Rather, they need extra guidance and reminders to follow through with classroom routines.
Figure 1
Student-friendly directions

Student-friendly directions

Figure 2
Approaches to support students in moving past problems

Approaches to support students in moving past problems

Bringing it all together

Executive functioning skills can impact students’ ability to showcase what they’ve learned in class. Students with executive functioning difficulties require specific strategies and support. Established, consistent classroom routines and expectations are vital, as is chunking your directions and assignments. You may even have to adjust your grading to ensure you are assessing your students on their knowledge and not their ability to follow directions. Finally, recognize that you will have to repeat yourself, sometimes over and over again. While this can be frustrating, remember to stay positive and focus on student growth (DiTullio 2018). With consistency, tolerance, and careful guidance, your students’ executive functioning skills will improve throughout the year!

Do you have a question about science for all?

Kaitlyn and Janey are middle school special education teachers and certified reading specialists in the state of Pennsylvania, working in suburban Philadelphia in the Upper Merion School District and the Methacton School District, respectively. They are both certified reading specialists in grades 7 and 8.

If you have a classroom situation that you’re having trouble finding a solution for, send it their way. You can contact Kaitlyn and Janey at sci4allstudents@gmail.com with any questions you may have or suggestions for future columns.

References

DiTullio G. 2018, November 9. Helping students develop executive function skills.

Executive Function Skills. (n.d.).

Hattie J., Fisher D., Frey N., Gojak L.M., Moore S.D., and Mellman W.. 2017. Sentence frames that can build metacognitive thinking. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Lynch M. 2018, September 18. 10 tools to help teachers develop executive functioning classroom skills.

Morin A. 2019, October 4. Classroom accommodations for executive functioning issues.

Rosen P. 2019, October 18. Working memory: What it is and how it works.

Spencer J. 2018, August 13. Five ways to boost metacognition in the classroom

Team U. 2019, October 16. Understanding executive functioning issues.

Topics

Citizen Science Teacher Preparation Teaching Strategies

Levels

Middle School

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