Thuy Truong, M.A. Ed.
Three Easy Steps to Accelerate Executive Function Skills Every Day
| by Thuy Truong, M.A. Ed., TPT Teaching and Coaching, 2/3/2021|
Executive function is considered a 21st century skill. It is the frontal lobe of the brain that controls response inhibition, working memory, task initiation, flexible thinking, sustained attention, and emotional control. These are the foundational skills that underlie academic success. The fast-paced, digitized world has rapidly elevated the important role and mastery of executive function skills. Nowadays, students are required to become proficient with executive skills at an earlier age because the educational landscape has become increasingly complex. With the rise of virtual instruction, executive function skills have become a strong determining factor in students' academic performance. Thus, repeated practice is essential in improving executive function skills. In order to help students maintain their executive skills in a highly intricate world, a rather interesting question is, how does one incorporate executive skills into the everyday while maximizing consistent implementation and effortlessness for a busy household and an easily distracted student? The following strategies may shed some light on this issue.
1. Multipurpose It
To maximize convenience, it is best to multipurpose a single executive skill in many ways to promote creative student application in the future, so parents can step back. Students also need multiple rounds of practice to bring a specific skill into long-term memory. This is particularly effective because it allows the student to digest the concept deeper through various real-life applications. For instance, let's take the concept of workload management: organize things as you go instead of letting it pile up. The student can practice this very skill in three to four different ways daily: update your planner, clean your room for 15 minutes, and set your materials out the night before. All these daily activities reinforce the skill of organization and management. The act of diversifying one skill in a wide variety of activities serves two benefits for the child: a) it will allow the child to have ample opportunities to process and practice the skill. b) the repeated rehearsals in various scenarios boost the child's memory of that specific skill. This irons out the wrinkle in the end because sometimes the child forgets the skill even though they want to apply it, so keeping the skill on top of the child's mind is vital.
2. Externalize It
Visual cues have always helped students with staying on track with assignments, a longstanding tradition in a classroom setting. For students who need additional executive function support, using visual reinforcements that strengthen working memory is a great tool to leverage. For example, use a bulletin board to create a weekly schedule, bright post-its to pin down priorities for the day, and white boards to plan out different phases of a long project. Not only do these serve as visual reminders, but it creates daily structure and organization as well as helping students externalize their problem solving strategies. Too often, students do not start work because they cannot pinpoint an appropriate starting point, so writing and posting daily, weekly, and monthly plans assist students in task initiation and build goal-setting skills.
3. Reimagine It
Students who need an executive function boost can also benefit greatly from flexible thinking, to think outside of the box, and to come up with creative solutions when things go astray. One creative way to assist students practice flexible thinking daily is teaching them to problem solve using the given or what they already know. For instance, I had a student who continually forgets to update her planner after school every day. I asked her what is the task she always does right after school. She said she goes on the internet. As a result, we came up with the plan to tape a huge sheet of paper over her laptop that said "Update Planner." After she is done with updating the planner, she can flip the sign over so she can see the computer screen and do work on it. Although this strategy is primarily a visual cue, it is also about reimagining the problem and coming up with an effective, creative solution that alleviates the student's challenge. So far, it has worked for her.
By utilizing the three pillars above, it will teach students to use one skill to springboard a host of others. The ultimate benefit is it will save the parents' time from guiding the child through every single task, instead through daily practice of creative problem solving, the students can learn to step up to solve their own challenges by using the executive skills they have been practicing with general parents' guidance from the initial stage and then reinforced daily.
Consistent implementation is one of the leading determinants for executive function growth and development. In my experience, students do quite well when they are modeled the first time how to executive a specific skill sets. It is vitally important that the scaffolding process is chunked out and thoroughly instructed so the student can understand the nuances of the skills. Daily practice will transcend the student's executive function skills through familiarity and rehearsal. Executive function improvement takes time and commitment. Consistent efforts will increase the chance of consistent results.
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