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Teaching Executive Function Skills at the Secondary Level

By Mary Oliver, Secondary Instruction Specialist

Powerful Information

We know more about how the brain works now than ever before. Researchers, medical professionals, and educators are learning more every day. Teachers have always known that students learn differently, and they must support them in various ways, but we needed more vocabulary to describe what we experience in the classroom. Recently, I participated in a webinar sponsored by CLAS about Executive Function. The presenter was Dr. Stephanie Corcoran, Assistant Professor of Curriculum Instruction at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The session was fascinating and caused me to think about the importance of explicitly teaching Executive Function skills at the middle and high school levels.

Some of the things I learned or was reminded of are listed below:

  • Frontal-lobe brain-based skills are needed to execute tasks

  • Full maturation of the frontal lobe may not occur until age 25

  • Executive Functions predict success in school better than IQ tests

    • These skills are also invaluable life skills

  • Executive Function deficit is not a learning disability and it is not rooted in laziness or apathy; students do not exhibit these behaviors on purpose

There are eleven sub-skills of Executive Function

  1. Response Inhibition

  2. Working Memory

  3. Emotional Control

  4. Flexibility

  5. Sustained Attention

  6. Task Initiation

  7. Planning/Prioritizing

  8. Organization

  9. Time Management

  10. Goal-Directed Persistence

  11. Metacognition

My Experience

A few years into my career as a secondary teacher I realized I needed to provide stronger structures for my students. I could see that my students had trouble orienting to the beginning of class, transitioning from one activity to another, or finishing an assignment. Yet, I did not have the vocabulary to give these behaviors a name. Once I became a parent, I began to realize that children need explicit instructions and structures to help them complete a task successfully, and that included the freshmen who were in my classes each day. Once I began to be more strategic with my instructions and put structures in place to help students get started on an activity or to know what to do to transition between activities or what to do if they got stuck, I saw fewer struggles by my students. At the time, I thought I was developing my classroom management skills, and I was, but I was also helping my students develop their Executive Function skills.

There Is More to Learn and Do

Dr. Corcoran outlined a number of strategies in the webinar for helping students strengthen their Executive Function skills and provided additional resources based on the work of various researchers. I have included links to some of the resources here. I plan to be intentional about bringing this topic to the attention of secondary teachers and helping them apply some of the strategies with their students. I believe the use of supports like these will greatly enhance the learning experiences of our secondary students.


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