As the Head of an Elementary School, parents of elementary students often ask me questions such as:
“We are consistently tardy for school. Why is it so challenging for my child to get out the door on time in the morning?” and “They are taking so long to complete homework at night and causing stress for our family. How can I help my child complete their assignments on time?” as well as “My child comes home from school and gets easily frustrated and becomes emotional when our routine changes. How can I help them calm down?”
If you’ve struggled with these issues or others that are similar, you aren’t alone. We begin seeing the signs of executive functioning challenges in elementary school when students face new expectations for following classroom routines and working toward independently completing school assignments. But the process of developing executive functioning skills is accessible to all ages and there are strategies to help.
The Harvard University Center on the Developing Child defines Executive Function (EF) as:
In the brain, the ability to hold onto and work with information, focus thinking, filter distractions, and switch gears is like an airport having a highly effective air traffic control system to manage the arrivals and departures of dozens of planes on multiple runways. Scientists refer to these capacities as executive function and self-regulation—a set of skills that relies on three types of brain function: working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control. Children aren’t born with these skills—they are born with the potential to develop them.
Again, the good news is that research on the developing brain shows that EF skills can be explicitly taught and can improve with practice.
At Boulder Country Day School, some practical ways our teachers help students develop and strengthen EF skills daily can be readily adapted at home are:
- Introduce the importance of routines and schedules and show these consistently through multiple modalities—visually and verbally reviewing together every day;
- Organize materials and belongings—everything has a place. Students should have places to keep their backpack, lunch box, pencils, notebooks, etc.; and
- Outline what the week looks like and plan accordingly. In 3rd grade, we begin teaching students to fill out their weekly planners with homework assignments, instrument practice, and extracurricular activities for example.
- Morning meetings give us the opportunity to connect with teachers and friends and “reset” to do our best learning;
- Build in short frequent movement breaks and “energizers” into academic time;
- Practice mindfulness to calm bodies through breathing, drawing, and reading; and
- Give verbal and visual warnings before transitions occur.
- Model problem-solving and verbalizing the metacognitive processes toward a solution by verbally and visually walking through the steps together;
- Complete graphic organizers or checklists with students to create a visual plan or “map” before we tackle larger assignments; and
- Demonstrate flexibility and adaptability “Oops, I made a mistake. That’s OK! Let me try to think of another strategy to help me figure this out”.
EF skills are critical for both school and personal success. Even at an early age, these skills can be developed to navigate academic and social situations and lead to positive student outcomes. Below is a collection of resources we have compiled that you may find helpful.
Author – Jill Johnson, Head of Elementary
If you’d like to learn additional strategies and tools to use at home, note that BCD is pleased to offer a Parent Education Series event with EF expert and the founder of Untapped Learning, Brandon Slade, on January 11th. This event will be held at 6:00 pm in person. We strongly encourage parents of students of all ages from preschool through to high school, and even college, to attend this event. The event is free and open to the public, so please invite your friends.