Making Time to Teach Executive Function

No time to teach executive function? It takes less time than you may think. In fact, weaving small bits of executive function strategy instruction into content can have a big impact.

Executive function is becoming recognized as an essential component of successful learning for all students, from reading and setting goals to leading a Fortune 500 company. Despite the mounting research on the importance of strong executive function strategies, instruction has not become widespread.

Why? Part of the problem is teachers’ age-old enemy, time. Teachers are already juggling multiple responsibilities. Executive function, as with other non-academic topics like mindfulness and social and emotional learning (SEL), can feel like just one more thing.

The truth is that it doesn’t have to take a lot of time to teach executive function strategies. While there are executive function strategy curriculums, such as SMARTS, that can fill an entire semester, integrating small bits of executive function instruction into existing content can save time and be extremely effective.

This idea of teaching small bits of executive function, or other non-academic and ‘brain-based’ skills such as empathy or self-control, is a powerful one. A study funded by the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative and led by Dr. Stephanie Jones of the Harvard Graduate School of Education found that teachers were not often addressing SEL explicitly in their teaching due to time constraints. In response, Dr. Jones “… began to think about the problem of implementation by brainstorming ways to do SEL in little bites, in small, routine, structure-based ways that you could imbed in a school in a way that is harder to do with a curriculum.”

Dr. Jones and her team developed what they call “kernels,” 10- to 20-minute activities aligned with the day-to-day routine of a classroom but addressing SEL outcomes explicitly.

For example, a teacher might play an icebreaker game or ask a thought-provoking discussion question, then take time to explicitly address the importance of making your thinking visible and being able to shift perspectives.

In SMARTS, we work with teachers to develop “extensions” to executive function, finding natural moments within instruction to introduce an executive function strategy. When introducing a new project, for example, a teacher might model a strategy for breaking down the directions and creating a checklist.

By finding time to share this strategy, the teacher is helping students navigate a challenging aspect of the assignment. What’s more, teaching the strategy in the context of a content assignment helps students to understand how and why to apply it.

Making time to address non-content outcomes can make a difference. Dr. Jones’ study showed that schools that adopted “kernels” for addressing SEL noted a significant reduction in suspension and discipline rates. In SMARTS, our extensions have been an effective way to help all teachers, whether general education or special education, take responsibility for addressing the executive function needs of their students.

So, no matter what subject or age you teach, take some time to reflect. Can you find 20 minutes to teach an executive function strategy your students could use? You won’t regret it if you do.

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director