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Executive Functioning in the Classroom

Executive Functioning in My Classroom

By Eugena Fields, Park Academy Teacher

“Why do I even need this class?” said one of my middle school students.  “I tried this at my old school, and I couldn’t do it then and got zeros every time…You can’t make me do this.”

These were the words that one student shared out loud, others nodded in agreement.  “What is an agenda, anyway?” said another. “We have to write down homework? But we don’t have any homework!” Many students explained that they don’t get homework. It was the beginning of October and I knew my fellow teachers were purposefully easing students into doing increasing amounts of homework. I said to the class, “Don’t you have to read every night for your Language Arts class or Reading class?” Silence. “What about when you have to study for a test? How will you remember to study or fill out your reading log and turn it in?” I said. They just stared at me.

I held up the bright orange paper and showed them how it worked and wrote in examples. I explained that this would be one way we could try to write down all of the “to do” items for each day and how they can be referenced at home. I asked them to put it safely in their homework folder and reminded them I would be checking it every few weeks. It was time for the class to go and I sensed that this was going to be a bumpy ride, to say the least.

I went home that afternoon and thought about the students’ reactions to the task of keeping an agenda. Writing things down is the last thing they want to do, but the act of writing can help make those connections in their brains. After some contemplation about how to make the agenda more appealing, I decided to make it worth ‘free time’ rather than points. Our kids rarely play the “points game” and tend to be much less motivated by grades. I know the “carrot on the stick” method can work, but it is hard to sustain long-term. I can’t always provide a carrot, but maybe if they can just have enough motivation to try it, they would see that it can be a helpful tool. If they can use the tool long enough, it could become a habit!

I myself was a very forgetful student and I would forget to do my homework. My teacher took me aside and explained that I would be using a tiny notepad that I was to keep in my back pocket at all times. I was to write down all my assignments from each class and report to her at the end of the day. This plan worked for me and my family as a communication tool and put the responsibility on me. Having adults check my work made me more accountable. This habit followed me to high school and beyond. I am a big fan of “to-do” lists and being able to cross items off your list is always a good feeling!

Even the best teachers in the best schools can’t be successful if they do not honor their students’ executive functioning challenges and emotional responses to learning. Lost assignments, missed deadlines, and procrastination thwarts school success. Juggling 7 classes with 7 different teachers is a lot for an average middle school brain, let alone one with the learning differences we typically see here at Park Academy. It is one of the reasons why many of our students come to our school after trying traditional middle and high school programs.

Children and adolescents do not come naturally to being organized without learning about and practicing how to use organizational tools like to-do lists, calendars, and agendas.  When you combine that with Executive Functioning Difficulties that many of our students have, it becomes obvious that as a group of diverse learners. For my students to stay organized, I will have to provide many different strategies for them to use as part of their daily routine. If agendas, binders, folders, or Google Calendars don’t work, we will try other methods. Yes, I may be “throwing spaghetti at the wall” as they say. We will try many methods and strategies and see what “sticks” but the most important thing we can encourage them to do is to just TRY.

If students and parents are aware of the role that Executive Functioning plays in school performance, they are better prepared to succeed. If you are interested in checking out some of my Organization Resources, I have included them below as well as the goals I have for all middle school Organization classes.

Organization Class Goals:

  • Estimate how much time is needed to do something
    • Set goals for school, self, and home
    • Tackle projects at an even pace (not too fast or too slow)
    • Remember when school assignments are due
    • Keep track of materials needed to do a project or task
    • Remember to take necessary materials between school and home
    • Clean up and organize their room and workspaces
    • Designate and use a specific place to store things (planners, binders, calendars)
    • Get to school or other activities on time
    • Go back to doing something after being interrupted
    • Make decisions with forethought and planning
  • Think about, or do, more than one thing at a time

Organization Resources:

~ Seeing My Time Workbook by Marydee Sklar is a scaffolded, multi-sensory curriculum that helps students develop the executive functioning skills of time-management, project-planning, and organization.

~ The Superkids Activity Guide to Conquering Every Day: Awesome Games and Crafts to Master Your Moods, Boost Focus, Hack Mealtimes and Help Grownups Understand Why You Do the Things You Do by Dayna Abraham.  This book helps kids and adults look at old problems in new ways. Through activities and insights for kids to deal with their adults this book can open up new paths for understanding in families– and allow them to have plenty of fun in the process.

~ Mind Coach by Daniel G. Amen is a book that is used to teach kids and teens how to think positive and feel good. Everything starts and ends in your mind. How your mind works determine how happy you are, how successful you feel, and how well you interact with other people. The patterns of your mind encourage you toward greatness or they cause you to flounder in mediocrity or worse. Learning how to focus and direct your mind is the most important ingredient of success. Mind Coach is a manual that will teach children and teens “thinking skills” that will help them be more effective in their day-to-day lives.

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