The human brain is an amazing organ and is responsible for most of our day-to-day functioning 一 from alerting us when we’re in pain to getting ready to fight danger when we need to. One of the most important processes of the brain, neuroscientists say, is executive functioning, which includes skills like self-regulation and impulse control.
Adolescents in middle and high school are in the process of developing the critical executive functioning skills that will serve them throughout their lives. Teachers can organize their classrooms and use executive functioning skills to help their teenage students build these important skills.
Here’s everything you need to know about how to teach executive functioning skills to your middle and high school students.
What Is Executive Functioning?
If you’re an adult, you’re probably able to follow directions, prioritize important tasks, and look at situations from different points of view. When upsetting or annoying things happen, you’re able to control your emotions to a certain extent and react in socially acceptable ways.
That’s because your brain has developed its executive functioning skills. Experts say that executive functions are controlled by the prefrontal cortex, which is located in the frontal lobe of your brain.
The three main areas of executive functioning include:
- Working memory: The ability to retain, organize, and use multiple pieces of information at the same time.
- Mental flexibility: The ability to shift your attention from one task to another (multitasking) or apply different rules and behaviors to different situations.
- Self-control: The ability to control your impulses, make good decisions, and regulate your emotions.
It’s important that middle and high school students strengthen their skills in each of these three areas.
Can Executive Functioning Skills Be Taught?
We start developing executive functioning skills in childhood, but kids’ brains continue developing until around their mid-20s. That’s why teens often have trouble regulating their emotions or controlling their impulses; the part of their brains that is responsible for executive functioning skills may not yet be fully developed.
Some adolescents have deficiencies in their executive functioning for different reasons. Things that can cause a child to have a deficiency in their executive functioning include:
- Neurodivergence like attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Mental illnesses like depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia
- Autism spectrum disorder
- Severe childhood abuse or neglect
- In vitro exposure to drugs or alcohol
On top of these things, other environmental factors can cause a child to temporarily struggle with their executive functioning skills. Some examples include:
- Drug or alcohol use
That’s where teachers step in. As a teacher, the way that you organize your classroom and teach different subjects can have an enormous effect on your students’ executive functioning skills. Neuroscience research has shown us that the human brain is moldable 一 especially for children and teens. Our brains can literally be rewired with practice and repetition, a concept that’s referred to as neuroplasticity.
That means that executive skills can be taught and learned, even for students who suffer from these deficiencies. Children aren’t born having these skills; they’re developed over time with practice. Middle and high school students need to be taught important executive functioning skills like impulse control and task management.
Ideally, these skills are modeled for teens both at home and at school. Teachers play an important role in designing their classrooms and curricula to give students time and space to develop their executive functioning.
How to Teach Executive Functioning Skills as a Middle or High School Teacher
Maybe you understand the importance of helping your middle and high school students with learning executive functioning skills, but you’re not quite sure where to start. Luckily, there are several ways you can explicitly teach these important skills to your students and set them up for future success.
Here are 8 things you can incorporate into your classroom to help your students develop strong executive functioning skills.
Encourage your students to set short- and long-term goals
Part of strong executive functioning is the ability to look into the future and make (and follow through with) plans. Executive functioning helps us to be able to stay focused on goals and prioritize tasks to be able to accomplish them. You can help students strengthen this muscle by encouraging them to set short- and long-term goals.
At the beginning of the school year (or the semester), invite your students to set personal and academic goals. Ideally, goals should be SMART 一 specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-limited. If students struggle with executive functioning, it may be best to start with shorter-term goals; for example, what do they want to accomplish by the end of the week?
Help students periodically monitor their own behavior and progress
Fostering students’ ability to self-reflect is a great way to build up executive functioning skills. Don’t set goals with your students just to leave them gathering dust. Goals need to be reexamined and monitored on a regular basis.
Work a time into your schedule when your students can revisit their goals and monitor their own progress towards them. This will encourage them to think about their behavior and make changes as needed 一 which will provide them with stronger executive functioning skills like self-control.
Post and stick to a daily schedule
Time management is an important executive function that will serve your students far into their future. Time management goes hand-in-hand with task prioritization, organization, and focus. When you help your students manage their time, you’re helping them strengthen all of these related skills.
Post the daily classroom schedule in a place where it’s easy to see for all of your students. It’s important that you do your best to stick to the planned schedule, as well. This will help students know what to expect and learn how to manage their time when completing tasks.
Provide visual reminders
Classroom decor often includes reminders about school rules and expectations. Why not have visual cues for executive functioning skills, too? After you’ve taught executive skills like time management or impulse control to your students, it can be helpful for them to have visual reminders about what skills they should be practicing.
You can have visual reminders up on the walls for your whole class to see. You can also choose to provide individualized visuals for students who struggle with specific skills. For example, if a student struggles with impulse control and interruptions, a visual reminder on their desk to raise their hand before speaking might be helpful.
Break tasks up into smaller, more manageable chunks
Students who struggle with deficiencies in their executive skills may have a hard time with long-term assignments. You can help them build skills like time management and task organization by breaking large assignments up into smaller, more manageable tasks.
Help your students identify what the first step is to completing their assignment. Help them break this first step down into even smaller steps. Then, set a time limit for when they will achieve this first step. Encourage them to use this skill every time they feel overwhelmed.
Provide opportunities for students to review what they’ve learned
Working memory is an important part of executive functioning. To help strengthen your students’ memory, review past lessons before moving on to the next one. That way, you can help your students actually retain the information you’re teaching them.
You can help your students review their own material. For example, maybe they can create a visual map of everything they’ve learned so far (this can help their brains organize information). Or perhaps they teach their classmates information they’ve struggled to retain. Any opportunity to strengthen your students’ memory will go a long way in helping them develop their brains’ executive functions.
Check in with students who are struggling
Don’t let any student fall through the cracks. If you notice that a student is lagging behind their peers in terms of their executive functioning, give them extra support. Especially for middle and high school students, try to support them as discreetly as possible; no adolescent enjoys being identified publicly as needing support.
You can help these students by building strong relationships with them, getting them connected to any special services, and explicitly teaching them executive functioning skills like time management. Compassion and an understanding that these students’ behaviors and interruptions come from a lack of skills, not disrespect, can go a long way in strengthening your relationships with them.
Lastly, mindfulness is a practice that can greatly strengthen all students’ executive functioning. Mindfulness has been shown to improve focus and provide mental clarity. It can also improve impulse control, even for students with ADHD. Studies have been conducted that prove that mindfulness benefits specific mechanisms of human memory. Mindfulness can also help everyone, both young people and adults alike, with being present with and regulating their emotions.
Middle and high school students don’t need to sit in silence for hours in order to harness the benefits of mindfulness. There are many engaging and age-appropriate mindfulness activities to choose from, and all of them can help students become calmer, more patient, and more focused in the classroom and beyond.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to teach executive functioning skills or in incorporating mindfulness lessons into your middle or high school curriculum, get in touch with Calm Classroom today.