Inspired Ideas
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Inspired Ideas

Teaching Executive Functioning Skills to Increase Student Agency

By Stephanie Howell and Tara Ruckman, Educators

Are you the Camel or the Horse and Buggy?

Do you feel like you care more about your students’ work than they do?

“If we want student buy-in, we have to start with student ownership” — John Spencer

Many teachers feel this way and are excited to give over control to their students but struggle with the weight of pulling the load. Picture a camel with the weight of a person and the sacks thrown over top, carrying all of it on their back as they travel through the desert. No offense to camels — they are very hard-working animals! But do you want to be the sole person to carry all that weight? Many teachers were experiencing this growing pain and started to go back to the ways of the traditional classroom. We were experiencing this same pain, but moving back to the traditional classroom is just not an option. The teacher’s role has become not the lead instructor (not the camel pulling the weight) but the guide on a path to creativity and independent learning (the horse and buggy).

As the teachers became facilitators of learning, we realized something was missing as implementation was attempted. The missing piece was executive functioning. Students did not have the skills to take over control and ownership of their learning.

In order to not be the person carrying all that weight like the camels, I like to provide the image of the horse and buggy. The horse is leading the way and trotting along with weight but definitely not carrying it all on its back. This depicts blended learning. We use different types of blended learning to navigate the terrain and make the ride smooth.

Blended learning is a great way for students to learn, but they must have executive functioning skills in order to be successful. Think of executive functioning skills as the harness and the way for the horse and buggy to flow together. Without the harness, the horse is going one way and the buggy is not following. We must have the right harness and organization for the buggy to travel smoothly with the horse. The types of blended learning we could use are station rotations, flipped models — with resources like playlists and roadmaps — and the grid method. Each of these different types of blended learning models and resources presents opportunities for teacher check-ins, independent work, collaborative work, and digital components.

When we added executive functioning through practicing skills in isolation or embedding them into lessons, we saw student independence and ownership increase. Executive functioning took ownership away from the teacher and placed it back on the students. Here are a few tips and tricks when it comes to executive functioning and blended learning:

Start of the Class: We like to have a bell work activity for students to come in and get started. Students work on Task Initiation, Working Memory, and Time Management during this activity. Students have a limited amount of time with a timer guiding this part of the learning. Students learn that they must get started right away (task initiation) and manage their time to get their bell work completed before the timer goes off. Students work on their working memory through spiral review. These concepts have been taught and students are reviewing and pulling information from their brains about the topic.

End of the Lesson: Students are working on organization and goal-directed persistence. We like to give students time to get organized at the end of a lesson, like determining which documents need to go into what folder physically and in their digital files. Students often play a game of “Fast and Curious”, an Eduprotocol, to review vocabulary. Students complete 5 — 10 minutes of vocabulary a day and see their scores improve. For example, on Monday a student might score 10%, then on Tuesday 25%, on Wednesday 56%, on Thursday 80%, and on Friday 90%. Students begin to develop a growth mindset and set goals to beat their scores from the day before.

Throughout Class: Work on emotional control and metacognition through reflection. At the end or start of class, you can ask your students how they are feeling about a project and ask them open-ended questions to boost metacognition.

Throughout blended learning, you can help students with planning and prioritizing activities. Students can create a to-do list of different activities that might need to be completed. You can conference with your students one-on-one to provide them with the support they individually need.

Just like most things in life, it does take time for students to develop these skills. Be patient with them and help them when they fail by providing them with resources and teaching them how to use the different resources.

Are you the horse and buggy or the camel carrying all the weight on your back? Think about it. Do you ever want all the weight on your back, do you ever want students to carry all the weight on your back? You want students to develop these skills (the harness that attaches the horse to the buggy) because you want students to have a smoother ride through life. Students will need these executive functioning skills in every aspect of their life when they leave school.

If you want to learn more, check out our book Control the Chaos: What it Takes to Create Order in the Classroom and Teach Executive Functioning Skills.

Stephanie is the CEO of Gold EDU, a founder of Global GEG, and the EdTech Lead for Pickerington Local Schools. She is key to the embedding and implementation of EdTech tools across her schools and organizations. She has a masters in Curriculum and Instruction and is an adjunct professor for Ashland University.

She enjoys creating resources to support the needs of teachers and students that increases engagement and levels up tier 1 instruction. She builds relationships with co-planning and co-teaching. She loves sharing her resources and connecting with educators across the world via social media and professional learning. When she is not busy sharing her resources and connecting with other professionals, she is spending time with her husband and son.

Tara is currently Certified Crisis Prevention Intervention Instructor, Youth, Teen, and Trauma Informed Yoga Educator, Resident Educator Program Coordinator and an Academic Behavior Coach for fourteen schools. In addition to her roles in the public school system she is also an adjunct Professor for Ashland University.

Tara is key to embedding and implementation of Tier 1, 2, and 3 behavior interventions. ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) and a Master’s in Special Education is her education. She enjoys dissecting intense behaviors through functional behavior assessments and turning them into comprehensive behavioral intervention plans to support student progress. She also loves the pro-active teaching of desired behaviors for students that need that support!

When she is not busy talking about behavior analysis, you will find her trying to show the people she loves how they are her #1!

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To be reminded why your work is so very important and for more stories and advice, visit our collection of teacher perspectives at The Art of Teaching.

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Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators. We focus on educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.

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