Teaching Executive Functioning

Field teachers are designing meaningful and intentional project-based learning experiences for our students. Learn more about how student engagement increases purposeful learning.

Thinking or metacognition is an essential skill for students in school—even more importantly, it is a necessary life skill. Executive functioning entails mental skill areas that we use every day, such as memory, flexibility, and self-control. Executive functioning is the conductor for the brain's orchestra and takes time and practice to develop cohesive collaboration. When there is dysregulation with executive functioning, there can be difficulties with focusing, following directions, handling emotions, among other things. Executive functioning is a growing skill that develops in early childhood and continues to young adulthood. Giving students the vocabulary of metacognition and executive functioning is an excellent start to supporting their ability to self-reflect on their learning and gain confidence as a learner.

Recently, Field students attended a session with Michelle Michlik, the academic support coordinator, to investigate executive functioning and gain some vocabulary to understand their own thinking. Students engaged in a seemingly simple activity that required only handclaps that start in the front of the group and progress to the back in a sequence similar to the wave at a sporting event. They reflected on the different brain functions used, such as movement and listening to accomplish the task. Students dug deeper into the thinking process and realized they also employed the complicated executive functioning task of having visual, auditory, and kinesthetic components working in harmony. Students also used emotional regulation and impulse control throughout the activity. Ultimately, they gained a greater understanding of the complexity of utilizing multiple regions of the brain. 

Discussions continued around processing speed and working memory, two very critical areas for executive functioning. Processing speed is variable in all students, and the understanding that "the fastest is not always the best" is an essential component of understanding good critical thinking. Working memory is the small amount of information held in the mind and used to execute cognitive tasks. It facilitates planning, comprehension, reasoning, and problem-solving. Understanding the parameters of working memory encourages students to get things out of their heads and written down in a format that works for them. A typical teacher request such as "show your work" in math class is a good practice strategy and supports working memory. Holding many numbers in your mind while manipulating them can be a mental gymnastics that robs good thinkers of significant conclusions.

Studies show that a student's understanding of metacognition and executive functioning can support life skills and learning. To further support and enhance that learning, we will continue to highlight these critical areas for Field students with activities to deepen student understanding of their strengths and needs.