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Teaching Executive Functioning Skills in the Elementary Classroom

The start of the year is traditionally the time for goal setting for people of all ages, and your students are no different! When setting goals with your students, executive function should definitely be part of the conversation.

SMART goals are nothing new. However, pairing SMART goals with executive functioning skills will help your classroom to run more smoothly and set your students up for success! Use these goal setting resources while teaching executive functioning skills in the elementary classroom.

Getting down to basics using executive functioning skills will change the way you teach and the way your students think about learning and life. EFS instruction can be used to improve behaviors such as following directions and perseverance beginning as early as kindergarten!

What Are Executive Functions?

Executive functions are a set of processes involved in self-management. They have been studied by neuropsychologists for years and apply to elementary education (and beyond)!

Executive functions enable a person to plan a trip, turn in homework, persevere through a difficult project, remember details, monitor one’s own comprehension, and more.

Executive Functioning Skills and SMART Goals

SMART goals are goals that are specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and timely. Helping students know what it means to set a SMART goal goes hand in hand with executive functioning skills in the classroom.

These executive functioning skills apply to goal setting. When helping your students set SMART goals, think about how these skills apply.

  • planning – the ability to figure out how to accomplish goals
  • organization – maintaining a system that keeps plans and supplies orderly and easy to find
  • time management – accurately understanding how long tasks will take, using time wisely and effectively
  • task initiation – resisting the urge to procrastinate and getting started right away
  • working memory – the ability to hold information in short term memory and retrieve when necessary
  • metacognition – being aware of what you do and do NOT understand
  • self-control – the ability to control your thoughts, emotions and actions
  • attention – the ability to focus on a person or activity for a period of time and shift focus when needed
  • perseverance – the power to stay focused on a task even when it becomes difficult
  • flexibility – the ability to deal with change and adapt to new situations

It’s easy to see how closely these skills align with goal setting in the elementary classroom.

Getting Started with Goal Setting and Executive Functioning Skills

Beginning the conversation about EFS and goal setting is very easy. It’s helpful to have visuals to which students can refer, like these SMART goal posters. After introducing the concept of goal setting, it’s time to get specific (the first letter of SMART goals).

Discussion of each of the executive functioning skills is important so that students understand the information clearly – depending on the age of the students, this discussion may take more than one class period. The process should also include doing a self-assessment. Following the self-assessment, there are two alternatives. You can focus on one EFS monthly as a class, or you can allow each student to select his or her own EFS on which to concentrate.

You don’t have to teach EFS like a professor. Talk about what planning looks like for your students, for example. It may be using the graphic organizers and tools provided with the goal setting bundle. It may be understanding metacognition through self reflection and asking questions (rather than teaching the term “metacognition”).

Teaching about executive functioning skills is useful for young and older students alike. When working with very young children, keep it simple and use lots of visuals. Using the SMART Goal portfolio bundle can be helpful in organizing your students’ data and making concepts more concrete. Older students won’t need as much explanation as the very young, but will definitely need clarification and plenty of examples. This goal setting craftivity can make the whole process more fun and inviting for students in grades 2-5!

SMART goals are nothing new. However, pairing SMART goals with executive functioning skills will help your classroom to run more smoothly and set your students up for success! Use these goal setting resources while teaching executive functioning skills in the elementary classroom.

More Goal Setting Ideas

Teaching Executive Functioning Skills in the Elementary Classroom


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