Project-Management for the Brain: Teaching Executive Functioning Skills for Students
At Purdue Polytechnic High School (PPHS), an XQ school in Indianapolis, Indiana, Eric learned physics…
At Purdue Polytechnic High School (PPHS), an XQ school in Indianapolis, Indiana, Eric learned physics during his senior year by building a chair out of cardboard. In this self-directed project, Eric chose an architectural style, created its design, and measured how it could support the weight of a person.
Completing this project required Eric to show mastery of physics, math and design. He also applied higher-order thinking skills, such as creativity, evaluation, and critical thinking. But Eric needed to apply a different set of skills In order for him to start the project and maintain it. He had to narrow down his options, set goals, determine his timeframe, and respond to setbacks with resilience. Much of the project revolved around trial and error.
These types of skills are known as executive functioning skills—they’re like the brain’s project-management system. Executive functioning skills support student learning by helping them initiate, maintain and follow through with tasks. By explicitly teaching executive functioning skills, high schools can set students up for success both in academics and in their lives after graduating.
What Are Executive Functioning Skills?
Commonly understood as the management system of the brain, executive functioning skills are the cognitive processes that we use to get things done—to make plans, remember important information, set goals, and prioritize between tasks. As adults, we are constantly reinforcing our executive functioning skills simply by working at our jobs, supporting our families, and taking care of our daily lives. However, by the time children begin to transition into early adolescence, they begin to seek more autonomy.
Just like adults, children thrive incredibly well with consistency and routine. Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child identifies the three fundamental skills of executive function:
- Working memory
- Mental flexibility
In the classroom, executive functioning skills often show up in students’ ability to self-regulate, find motivation, and hold themselves accountable for their overall learning. While teenagers may begin to rebel, this normal developmental milestone means that teaching executive functioning skills will help them thrive as they strive for more independence.
Types of Executive Functioning
Executive functioning is a set of mental skills that translates to behavioral outcomes. By looking at it from both cognitive and behavioral perspectives, educators can learn to identify when students are having trouble with executive functioning and how they can intervene.
Executive Functioning Skills: Cognition
Understood.org, a nonprofit advocating for people with learning and thinking differences, identifies several executive functioning skills related to cognition that are especially relevant for students, including:
- Paying attention
- Organizing, planning, and prioritizing
- Regulating emotions
- Remembering instructions
- Understanding different points of view
Executive Functioning Skills: Behavioral
Executive functioning skills also manifest in students’ behavior. Some common behavioral executive functioning skills include:
- Following instructions
- Keeping track of materials
- Transitioning between activities
- Managing time
- Turning in assignments on time
Notice that these behaviors can be easily misidentified in the classroom. For example, a teacher might think a student who always turns in their assignments late lacks motivation or doesn’t care about school. Reframing these behaviors as a part of executive functioning, a skill that can be learned and improved, can help educators get students the support they need.
Further, students with learning disabilities may have difficulties mastering or applying these cognitive and behavioral executive functioning skills. It’s important for educators to identify what specific accommodations and support systems have already been established, and to reference those to better support students. Remember to speak with your support teams and administrators if you need targeted strategies or are unsure.
How Executive Functioning Skills Support Academic Success
Executive functioning and academic success are closely related, but it doesn’t guarantee mastery in academic content.
An article from EdWeek by Sarah D. Sparks explains how research failed to find a direct causal relationship between executive functioning and academic achievement. Helping students become more organized will not improve reading comprehension—to build those skills, students need academic interventions, like targeted phonemic awareness.
This doesn’t mean that executive functioning skills don’t support academic success. For example, a Cult of Pedagogy article by Jennifer Gonzalez explains how teaching executive function can improve the academic success of students who understand academic concepts, but don’t have the self-regulatory skills to stay on track with school assignments.
“What most of us have tried with these students turns out to be counterproductive; we’ve approached them in the same way that we approach our other students,” writes Gonzalez. “For most kids, our standard methods for keeping them organized work just fine, but these kids need something different.” She refers to lessons she’s learned from Seth Perler, a coach on executive function and ADHD.
This relates to one of our core XQ Design Principles: youth voice and choice. Youth voice and choice is the idea that students should have the agency and autonomy to lead their own learning. When students have a say in what and how they learn, engagement increases. Without strong executive functioning skills, like initiation and self-regulation, it’s difficult for students to exercise their agency and autonomy. Teaching executive functioning skills, then, empowers students to take control of their own learning, leading to stronger academic engagement.
What Are the Essential Executive Functioning Skills for Students?
Today’s high school students will graduate into a complex and rapidly changing world. To succeed, they need more than academic knowledge: they need adaptability, creativity, and problem-solving skills in order to apply their knowledge to the real-world challenges they’ll face.
We developed the XQ Learner Outcomes to serve as a blueprint for what young people need to know and do so they are fully prepared for the future. These research-based outcomes combine academic, social and emotional, and behavioral skills. Below, we’ve identified five executive functioning skills that are essential for high school students to achieve success in the classroom, and in mastering these outcomes.
1. Adaptable Thinking
Adaptable thinking refers to students’ ability to change their perspectives or actions in response to new information. This connects to the XQ Learner Outcome original thinkers for an uncertain world—to succeed after high school, students need to be able to deal with conflicting knowledge, create novel ideas in ambiguous situations, and reframe problems when learning from different perspectives.
Adaptable thinking encompasses several executive functioning skills and requires students to have some mental flexibility. Students who are able to self-manage and direct their learning will be better prepared to regulate their emotions in response to the learning challenges they’ll face. We identified these competencies in our XQ Learner Outcomes as Learners for Life—a set of skills that can help support executive functioning.
Also known as self-regulation, self-monitoring is the process by which students assess their own learning and adjust accordingly. This begins with student self-initiating, and includes organizing priorities and seeing a task through to completion. The Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College breaks down self-monitoring for students into three steps:
- Plan, set goals, and layout strategies
- Use strategies and monitor performance
- Reflect on performance
Self-monitoring is key for students to take ownership of their own learning. It’s the underlying mental process behind competency-based learning, a powerful approach to learning where students move through content at their own pace, progressing only when they’ve truly mastered a skill or concept. By teaching students to lead their own learning in high school, educators empower students as learners for life, another XQ Learning Outcome.
3. Working Memory
Working memory describes students’ ability to hold information for short periods of time. Just like a computer, working memory can influence the amount of time or energy a student is willing to give. Working memory can also have a role in students’ ability to regulate their emotions, thus impacting their behavior when it comes to committing to tasks.
Understood.org describes working memory as “a temporary sticky note in the brain” holding information in place. A student who struggles to remember in the moment may become frustrated, or even shut down. Helping students to recall information quickly through the use of mnemonics and quick reflex activities can help strengthen their working memory
Working memory enables students to accomplish more complex cognitive tasks, like comprehensive writing activities or solving multi-step, real-world-based math problems. Students use working memory to hold multiple pieces of information in their mind at once so that they can make connections between ideas and progress in the XQ Learner Outcomes, masters of fundamental literacies, and holders of foundational knowledge.
4. Time Management
Any teacher knows the importance of time management—the ability to plan and control time spent on different tasks. Effective time management for students involves several different executive functioning skills, like prioritizing tasks, regulating emotions around deadlines, and avoiding distractions.
Time management helps students stay on track with their learning individually, and it also helps them work with others. High school should prepare students to work with others as generous collaborators. By learning time management and completing work when they say they will, students are better able to work with others and hold themselves accountable for doing their part.
Organization describes the ability to arrange information into a structure that makes it easier to manage or comprehend. As an executive functioning skill, organization might involve a student developing a system of folders to better keep track of their documents in a given subject. It might also mean learning to take notes on a book to better remember its themes, or learning how to schedule learning tasks based on their due dates.
It’s important for students to understand organization, not as a hoop they have to jump through, but as a tool they can use to make learning easier and more efficient. Teachers can help students build organizational systems that make sense to them, and that will help them accomplish their academic goals.
How Do We Teach Executive Functioning Skills to High School Students?
Teaching executive functioning is different from teaching concrete skills or concepts, as it involves helping students build cognitive processes and ways of thinking. So how can teachers do this in high school classrooms?
Educators may be tempted to teach executive functioning by building rigid structures around skills like organization and time management. But research shows that this prescriptive approach isn’t the best way to teach these skills. In an article for the Atlantic, Jessica Lahey explains how a study of kid’s play found that children who have more opportunities for free play, risk-taking, and independent discovery have higher levels of “self-directed executive function,” or “the ability to generate personal goals and determine how to achieve them on a practical level.”
Below are three suggestions for how educators can balance structure and freedom to guide students in developing executive functioning skills of their own.
Set Up a Supportive Classroom for Executive Function
The environment in which students learn has a profound impact on their thinking; that’s why one of our XQ Design Principles is the smart use of time, space, and technology. In an article for Edutopia, learning specialists Amelia Glauber and Andrew Ayers recommend four ways teachers can design their classrooms to support students’ executive functioning.
- Emphasize procedure: Reinforcing procedures through classroom design frees up mental space for students’ working memory so they can focus on academic content. This might look like displaying charts with daily routines, checklists, or other visual cues.
- Model organizational structures: Designing your classroom to emphasize organizational routines—like a consistent place to turn in homework—empowers students to implement similar organization for themselves.
- Enable task initiation: Design your classroom so that students know where to find materials to maximize their ability to start tasks on their own, without teacher support.
- Minimize distractions: To help students stay focused and manage their time, keep distractions—whether visual, auditory, or social—to a minimum.
Engage Students in Self-Directed Goal Setting
To strike the right balance between freedom and support, guide students in leading the process of setting their own academic goals. Teachers can facilitate this process by having students ask questions such as:
- What do I want to accomplish? How can I be as specific as possible?
- What is the timeframe for this goal? Can I break it down into smaller tasks?
- What support will I need? How can I reach out for help?
- How will I reflect on my work to see if I accomplished my goal?
Utilize Strategy Instruction
High school students who struggle with executive functioning skills may need more explicit, strategy-based instruction before they can internalize these skills by applying them on their own. Strategy instruction is particularly helpful for students who learn and think differently, like students with ADHD, but it can help all learners build intentional executive functioning skills.
Understood.org provides an in-depth guide to strategy instruction built around five basic guidelines:
- Identify and prioritize. Focus on an executive function your students struggle with, then pick a specific strategy to address that function.
- Connect the strategy to an activity or assignment. For learning to stick, it should take place in a meaningful context.
- Model the strategy, and explicitly name what you’re doing as you do.
- Let students practice. Give students many opportunities to use the strategy on their own and then receive feedback.
- Support the strategy by reteaching it and continuing to model it over a series of lessons.
Executive functioning skills help students master the how behind education—how they can learn more effectively, and how they can apply what they learn to accomplish their goals and passions. Executive functioning skills support academics by empowering students to take ownership of their learning. They also empower students to keep up their own learning beyond the classroom.
Whether through redesigning your classroom to model strong organization skills, or helping students outline goals for their learning, teaching executive functioning skills in your classroom can help your students become more confident, self-sufficient learners. Follow our work for more on how to teach your students the skills they’ll need for future success.
Image at top of Eric, with the chair he constructed during at Purdue Polytechnic University in April, 2021 during the COVID pandemic. (Photo by John Underwood, Purdue University)