Promoting Executive Function – Thinking About Thinking
By Shira Jacobson, Curriculum and Programming Coordinator, and Deanna Stecker, Coordinator of Learning Support
Finish your writing and get ready for math.
Take out a pencil
Take out your folder
Take out 3 different colored highlighters
Think about what we learned yesterday
Answer the question on the board
Share your answer with your partner
Listen to your partner’s answer
Prepare to share with the class
Put your paper in your folder
Choose a manipulative to help you solve the problem
When you finish your work, put your paper in the bin and choose a math puzzle
This is just a sampling of academic and non-academic tasks that we expect students to successfully perform in just one class in a seven and a half hour school day. This success relies on students internalizing that, beyond facts and information, they have to understand what they need to do in order to learn. We are not born knowing how to organize our materials or prioritize information; these are brain processes that we either develop through experience or must be taught.
Goal setting, planning, prioritizing, organizing, thinking flexibly, remembering, and self monitoring constitute the constellation of processes known as “executive function.” These processes help us juggle the myriad of tasks we need to get done throughout each day.
Goal Setting and Planning
Goal setting refers to the ability to identify a desired outcome based on an understanding of personal strengths and challenges. In order to meet a goal, students need to carefully organize their approach by considering both the “big picture” and the smaller steps involved. Through goal setting, a student might plan out the stages of a long-term project or set smaller goals, such as reading a certain amount each day in order to finish a book.
Organizing and Prioritizing
Organizing is creating a meaningful structure for organizing parts into a meaningful whole. Prioritizing involves ordering these parts based on relative importance. These skills refer to organizing materials, time, and information. Students need to develop strategies for tasks such as creating an outline when writing an essay or determining what step to do first when solving a math problem. Other tasks requiring organization strategies include figuring out where to store incomplete work so that it can be found the next day, or deciding when to do homework and how long it will take.
Remembering and Working Memory
Working memory is the ability to hold information in one’s mind and to mentally manipulate this information. During a school day, students rely heavily on working memory for managing most tasks they are responsible for completing. We often help students remember by offering visual and verbal cues, opportunities to repeat new information and review it in different ways, and charts and organizers for recording information. A favorite strategy in Torah is to highlight specific types of words in different colors in order to understand the meaning of the text.
Cognitive flexibility, or the ability to think without rigidity and to shift mindsets easily, includes the ability to adapt to unfamiliar or unexpected situations, to combine concepts creatively, and to integrate different representations. Cognitive flexibility is crucial for learning new concepts, solving problems, and understanding the perspective of others. It helps students transition smoothly between different classes and subjects, or be open to hearing opposing ideas and then reconsidering their own perspectives.
Self-monitoring refers to students’ ongoing process of reflecting and using strategies to track their own performance and outcomes. When students learn to edit and revise their writing, teachers often provide students with explicit checklists so that they know what to look for in their writing. Students are then taught to use the checklists to self-monitor as they go through the writing process. Similarly, students can develop personalized math checklists based on errors that they tend to make when solving problems, and use these checklists when they look over their own work.
At Schechter Manhattan, it is important to us that our students learn to be reflective and to think metacognitively in order to understand themselves as learners. Beginning with our youngest students, we set goals with them and consider areas of strength (“glows”) and areas for improvement (“grows”). We help our students reflect on their work and develop action steps for reaching their goals. In order to expand our practice, we have devoted several professional development sessions for our faculty to explore how to best teach executive function strategies to our students. The teachers have begun to explicitly teach executive function skills using the SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum, in order to help our students develop strategies for handling things that come their way.
By teaching executive function skills, we not only support students’ academic success, we also help them develop self-confidence and a positive attitude towards school. In turn, our students flourish in classrooms where a culture of self awareness and reflection are paramount. A cycle of success begins: as our students become more strategic learners and use the executive function skills they have practiced, they become more academically successful. This success promotes student motivation and persistence, which gives them the freedom to take risks and engage in learning. They develop an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses and how to use their learned strategies in order to grow. In turn, students become valued members of their classroom communities and develop the skills to become life-long learners and successful adults.
For more information:
The SMARTS curriculum emerged out of the work of Lynn Meltzer and ResearchILD.
SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum
Read more about executive function and child development from The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.