No matter what subject or topic an educator is teaching, sometimes the best way we can approach an instructional challenge is by taking a step back to look at the big picture of learning. In order to learn skills such as sentence fluency or multiplication, students need to develop the brain functions that will first enable them to focus on tasks and retain information.

For the past several years my district has emphasized the importance of helping students improve a set of thinking skills known as executive function skills. These functions are a set of cognitive processes, such as focus, memory and self-control, which enable us to manage information and complete tasks.

To start an initiative to improve executive function among students, districts first need to prepare teachers. With professional development opportunities, teachers can learn about brain sciences and how students learn and develop executive function skills during their K-12 education and beyond. Districts must inform teachers about how to recognize students who struggle with executive weakness, and what strategies can assist students in developing these skills.

Knowing Cognitive Capacities

In order for teachers to target specific executive function skills, they must first be able to identify them. Our teachers work with the below list of skills, which is in part informed by C8 Sciences’ list of Core Cognitive Capacities.

  • Impulse control
  • Sustained attention
  • Task Initiation and Self Monitoring
  • Cognitive Flexibility
  • Sustained Attention
  • Working Memory
  • Organization and Planning

Teachers then need to reflect on how these items manifest in the classroom. For example, if a student has been in class for ten minutes and still does not have the materials out that they need, this can be a sign of task initiation weakness. Once the teacher recognizes a student needs to work on task initiation, they can develop a list of strategies to address this learning problem.

(Next page: Tools and exercises for building executive function skills)


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