Executive Functioning Support Unlocks Student Potential, Part 1

Executive Functioning Support Unlocks Student Potential, Part 1



By Sarah Miller, high school teacher 

East Chicago Central High School



Patterns Lead to Discoveries

Now that school is in full swing, I am getting to know my students both individually and as a group. As a teacher focused on reading support, I look for the specific support areas for each student, of course. In addition, as I delve more deeply into each student’s unique strengths, I also look for patterns and areas where I can more universally support most of the students in my charge. As teachers, I’m sure it will not surprise you that I find quite a few of both!


A Big Obstacle

Since I am a high school teacher, it is my job to ensure my students do their work as autonomously and independently as possible—no small task even for adults. So, as much as I work with each student to shore up individual areas to help them like skimming for main ideas, summarizing, and taking notes, I’ve discovered that a majority of my students struggle with something even bigger. These bigger obstacles have little to do with my lesson plan, and everything to do with the level of results they achieve: Many high school kids just aren’t organized—yet!


Little Lapses Leave Big Clues

I am always on the hunt for better ways to help my students with actions as simple as showing up to class with a pencil to figuring out how to parse big tasks into more manageable pieces. As I scan my new classes of students, once again I detect a familiar pattern: my high schoolers always seem to have trouble with executive functioning skills. Every day, students come into my classroom without pencils, homework, notebooks, books, or even an idea of where and how to begin more complex assignments.

They often have issues remembering what they need to do first, next, and last. In short, some of my students drive cars and work 30 hours a week after school, but they also have trouble using their limited time efficiently. As a result, many of my hard-working kids have not yet achieved the levels of success that I know they are capable of reaching.


Executive DIS-Function is Pervasive

After checking with other teachers and doing some research, I quickly discovered that my kids are not alone. So, I set out to develop some approaches and integrate some tools that will help my students form—and keep—life-long executive functioning habits that will serve them well in school, in their jobs, and in life. (And here it looked like I was supposed to be focusing on reading comprehension!)

In this OVERVIEW blog post, I’ll share some broad brushstrokes about executive functioning and why, as a teacher, it is so worth the investment to help your kids reach their next level of mastery with these valuable life skills. Notice I wrote next level. That’s because executive functioning skills are never fully mastered by any of us! There’s always a new habit to hone, a new tool to incorporate, a new improvement to be made, and new habits to add to even our own teacher repertoires.


My Favorite Get-Organized Teacher Tool

While we are on the subject of my own executive functioning as a teacher, I just have to stop and share with you my new favorite get-organized teacher tool. I’m always on a tight budget so I tend to spend for products for my students first. That said, at the start of each school year, I do treat myself to one new tool, just for me. My find this year is awesome. It’s the Keep It Together! Portfolio Case from Teacher Peach. It gives me a whole lot of organizational support for just $29.95.


This snazzy accordion-fold handled portfolio keeps my own work organized by class, students, or content. It helps me keep my materials easily at hand with its baker’s dozen of 13 different expandable pockets and labels for each. There’s room for my lesson plans, handouts, and homework assignments.

I tend to keep the items I need most in the front and back exterior pockets. The Velcro® closures are great and the reinforced stitching along the sides makes this expandable portfolio strong. There are pockets for my USB drive, my pen, and my ID when it isn’t dangling from my neck, too.

My biggest dilemma was choosing from the four fantastic colors: hot pink, lime green, royal blue, or all black. I’m toying with getting one in each of the four colors, one for each quarter, so I can simply tuck away my Q1 materials when I start Q2, while it is all still fresh in my mind. This method will give me a head start next year. Check it out at teacherpeach.com. I think you’ll find it a favorite, too, because executive functioning habits always benefit from smart tools, used well. Talk about an executive functioning organizational plus!


Executive Functioning In Action

Organization is as critical for my students as it is for me, probably more. When they can’t remember homework, find their notes, or just seem overwhelmed, it’s my cue to focus on executive functioning skills. This term has been around for a long time and we’ve all heard it. Official definitions range from succinct to technical. There are many noted authorities on the subject, should you want to dig in and do research.

In short, executive functions have been described as routines, habits, and processes that help us manage ourselves in many different life situations and help us harness the right available resources to achieve a goal or complete a task. Executive functioning has been used as an umbrella descriptor for myriad neurologically based self-regulation and mental control skills. Typically categorized into 8 main types, executive functioning skills help us to plan, focus our attention, remember, and juggle multiple tasks—all critical in my classroom, for sure.


In My Classroom. . .

Executive functioning helps my students develop what I call “Smart Approach Skills” to help them become more efficient and therefore more successful. These “Smart Approach Skills” not only help my students succeed in class, they help my students outside of class to become more successful human beings and members of society. Some students I’ve worked with over the years were amazingly bright and could have masterminded a really complex new invention; without executive functioning support, however, they probably have shown up at the Parent Office without the necessary paperwork or even a pen!


When It Works, It’s Amazing!

Students who possess stronger executive functioning skills are also a pleasure to teach. Behavior issues seem to diminish in direct proportion to the degree that students’ executive functioning skills increase. When students have solid executive functioning skills and smart work habits, none of us has to worry that they have their materials or will remember when assignments are due. As their teacher, I can spend our limited time together teaching new content instead. When executive functioning skills serve my students, we all win and I’m able to add precious teaching minutes to each class period.


Four Focus Areas and Four Tools

Teaching students to become productive members of society is one of my core goals as a teacher and I’m sure it is on your goal lists, as well. There are many ways to help students to develop stronger executive functioning skills. In each of my next four blog posts, I’ll showcase a specific executive functioning need that my students present and share some ideas that have worked for me. I’ll also share links to Teacher Peach’s Executive Functioning product line so you can see some of the transformative tools I incorporate. Want a sneak peek? Click here!


Stay Tuned for More

As teachers, we all know it is part of our jobs to make sure our students remember what they need to do, master what they need to learn, and achieve the most they possible can. We also need to help them develop the life-long skills they’ll need today and long into the future to be responsible and therefore successful, both as students and as members of society.

As a teacher, I’d love to know how you address executive functioning strategies in your classrooms. I hope you’ll comment below to share your ideas. Look for my next executive functioning blog post this weekend! Now? Back to my classroom and my more-organized-than-yesterday students!