Executive Functioning: What is it?
The term “executive functioning” has gradually transitioned from an obscure psychological term to a somewhat overused buzzword. Despite its newfound popularity, its meaning often remains less than clear. Although commonly understood as a child’s capacity to keep things organized and keep a desk or locker from looking like a total disaster, the term represents so much more!
When considering traditional learning, we think of sharing information with students and helping them develop skills. These are both examples of input: students taking in information and skills. EF is simply the flip side of that: everything related to output, or acting on those skills, is executive functioning.
Let’s say you have a student who absolutely loves presidents and learns everything he can about them. He’s a true expert and can enthusiastically spout out facts and information about different presidents at will. However, when he tries to write a research paper about his favorite president, things begin to fall apart. His actual research is completely disorganized - papers are everywhere, and he can’t find important documents when he needs them. He also has trouble pulling the key ideas out of his research and is unclear about what’s important and what’s not. He rushes to complete his paper in two days, even though he’s had this assignment for over two weeks. His writing is disorganized; he has no idea how to develop arguments, structure paragraphs or organize his ideas. Although his input was great, his output is an absolute mess!
We’ve all seen these kinds of bright students, superb at taking information in, but weak in their ability to deliver it back out. This discrepancy often appears in writing, on tests, and through work quality. These children don’t need help mastering the learning itself; they need support for learning how to act on this learning. They need to master important skills such as note taking, organizing, studying, synthesizing, writing, and prioritizing. They need support in executive functioning.
Skills within Executive Functioning
Executive functioning instruction is comprised of four different levels. The physical organization level involves setting up an organizational system to help students manage their notebooks, assignments, and handouts. The next level, distraction and time management, involves teaching students how to work productively, stay focused and manage time effectively. The third domain, study skills, focuses on helping students develop effective study habits such as note-taking, annotation, and test preparation. Our final domain, working smarter, not harder, involves focusing on advanced time management and study techniques.
EF encompasses many skills, and each one contributes to a student’s long-term success in both academic and work environments. Fortunately, these skills are learnable and can be broken down, taught, practiced, and mastered.
Executive Functioning at Vine
At Vine, the development of Executive Functioning skills underlies every one of our classes. We don’t believe these skills should be taught to just a few students. Instead, our position is that all students should be constantly developing and improving these essential productivity skills.
We teach executive functioning skills in the following ways:
- We have a place for everything and teach students to put everything in its place. This helps students learn physical organization.
- We actively teach note-taking skills beginning in third grade. Our students begin with the simplest note-taking format necessary to ensure success; we gradually increase the level of the notes until each student is a note taking expert.
- We don’t assign homework, but we do teach students to manage assignments in a format similar to an assignment notebook. Every class includes a form of assignment tracking.
- We teach students focus by gradually increasing active concentration time We also break down large tasks into smaller chunks and teach overall time management skills.
- We teach writing as an executive functioning skill by breaking down paragraphs and arguments into specific structures that can be executed and then built upon.
- We teach studying techniques and support students in developing a daily studying habit.