Executive Functioning Skills are important in helping a student successfully navigate his or her school day. So, what are they exactly and how do they look within a classroom? Collectively, these skills are what helps a student regulate his/her own behavior. Here is a breakdown of the skills: planning, organization, time management, working memory, and metacognition. Let’s talk in detail about each one a little further.
Planning is what we use to decide what is important to focus on and what is not important to focus on. This is what helps a student reach the completion of an assignment in school. When a student is weak in this skill, a teacher will frequently say that he/she is unable to complete classroom assignments independently. He/she may possibly be working on a different task (such a drawing or writing) during math time.
Organization is shown when a student can easily locate all of his/her materials needed for an assignment. For example, a student who is strong in this skill will be able to independently find the writing notebook, a pencil, collect a new graphic organizer, and overall be prepared for the assignment.
Time management is when a student shows they know how to judge how much time he/she needs to complete an assignment or a classroom project. It’s typical to see a teacher help with this area during class by posting how much time the students have for an independent assignment or group work. If a student is weak in this skill, you may see him/her struggling to pace the time to finish all parts of the assignment to completion. When the time is up and the teacher transitions to the next subject on the classroom schedule, a child who is still working on the beginning of the last assignment would be showing a weakness in time management skills.
Working memory is how our brains hold information in our minds while performing a more difficult task. We do have the ability here to “pull up” past learning experiences and apply them to a task or an assignment. For example, we see this in the classroom when a student is asked to write a narrative. While writing, the student is putting the idea down on paper while remembering to use punctuation, correct use of grammar, and spelling. All of those tools are working together.
Metacognition is when a student has the ability to have a “bird’s eye view” of himself or herself. When this skill is strong, a student would be able to observe how he/she is problem solving and even question himself/herself in how he/she did.
There are more executive functioning skills that we use when we face a new problem or want to achieve a goal. They are: response inhibition, emotional control, sustained attention, task initiation, flexibility, and goal directed persistence.
Response inhibition: This is basically the skill of thinking before you act. When a student is able to “pause” and think before saying or doing something, than that student would be strong in this skill.
Emotional control: This is when a student can manage his or her own emotions so he/she can complete a classroom task or assignment or successfully reach his/her own goal.
Sustained attention: If a student has a strength in this skill, then he/she is able to attend to a task within the classroom even with distractions around him/her and feeling tired or bored.
Task initiation: This is when a student can successfully start an assignment without procrastination. You may see a weakness in the classroom if, after the teacher has given directions to begin a task, a student is walking around looking for a pencil, sharpening the pencil, asking to go to the bathroom, talking to a peer, etc.
Flexibility: This skill involves a student being flexible in a change in the classroom routines, a mistake in his/her work, or any setback or change that may occur during their day. A student who may show weaknesses in this skill would become rigid or upset if a change occurred suddenly during an assignment or in the schedule.
Goal directed persistence: This skill involves a student having the ability to follow through to finish a goal that he/she set for themselves or possibly by the teacher without getting discouraged with a competing interest.
Honestly, we could talk for days on this topic. 🙂 When a student is weak in one of these skills, it affects his/her overall school day as well as at home. It’s important, as parents and educators, to recognize where a child’s strengths and weaknesses are in relation to these skills so we may help support and strengthen these skills. When we allow these skills to continue to be weak without any support, it’s common to see an increased problem in school as the child grows and attends higher grades. For example, “organization” in first grade may look like a child leaving behind a parent letter or forgetting to unpack his book bag at school (or when he comes home from school). Leaving the skills to continuously be weak, in high school, “organization” will look like a messy book bag with a lot of difficulty finding assignments, turning in assignments, and forgetting about assignments. If these skills are strengthened over time, we will see a child who can manage time, projects, and maintain sustained attention. Additionally, once our children understand why they have trouble turning in assignments, keeping track of materials, or finishing activities then they can begin to work to change these behaviors to new behaviors with which they are happy. This enables students, parents, and teachers to partner together to teach the whole child.
If you would like to read more about executive functioning skills, we have a few recommendations.
Here are a couple of fantastic reads:
Christina and Wendy