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Working on Executive Functioning Skills in the Classroom

At a Glance

In this post, we'll go over how executive functioning skills can be better incorporated into the classroom.

Types of classroom activities will be discussed where you can embed executive functioning or highlight its use.

We link a few ideas for you to get started with executive functioning in your classroom.

Welcome back to our Executive Functioning (EF) series, where we will be covering the myriad of skills that executive functioning can entail and ways to practice those skills across various settings for autistic people and members of support networks for autistic people.


In this part, we are taking a closer look at some implicit and explicit ways you can work on EF skills in the classroom. One helpful tool we want to share at the beginning is our free Executive Functioning Skills Poster, which can be a great reminder of many of the skills that make up our overall EF and how they might help in a given situation. 


But beyond learning what EF skills are, how can they be better incorporated into the classroom?

Embed in the Curriculum

As we mentioned in the first part of this series, EF at its core is about how a person manages their day-to-day tasks. While that can sometimes make approaching the concept of EF skills somewhat frustrating and abstract, the good news is that practice for many of those skills can (and to some extent probably already are) built into various classroom activities.


Consider, for example, the practice of setting checkpoints for long-term projects to ensure that reasonable progress is being made and students are able to manage their workload. That in and of itself is a form of practicing executive functioning, but it could go a step further and actively include students in the process. Instructors can offer some helpful guardrails based on their knowledge of the project while giving students the opportunity to practice their Time Management, Planning and Organization skills!


Warm-ups and exit tickets can also incorporate more active building of EF skills. If your style is to incorporate a variety of warm-up activities, which do your students think has helped them most with Task Initiation? If you focus on a primary few warm-up activities, do your students have specific preferences for initiating specific types of tasks? 


During exit tickets or check-ins can students evaluate their progress (Self-Monitoring) and use that to consider next steps (Planning) as a way of practicing Metacognition?


In most activities you are likely to find great examples of EF. When you recognize an example of EF skills in one of your classroom activities, it’s an opportunity to consciously amplify that element of the activity and give students the opportunity to focus on how given EF skills can help make managing their tasks easier!

Problem Solve Through Scenarios Together

As helpful as it can be to actively work EF skills into your curriculum, sometimes the stakes can feel higher when they are exclusively attached to bigger projects. 


After all, part of the purpose of practicing EF skills is to learn from our mistakes, and mistakes during a big project can feel like a bigger deal than it has to be! Building a safe space where students can build up their confidence in working through mistakes is a great way to encourage them to build up their executive functioning.


One helpful area in which there are many ways to cultivate such an environment is during independent work. For any given activity, it’s possible to outline what to do when a student has questions, how long it should take to complete a given task, and what to do if a problem arises. Students who feel like there is something they can do when things aren’t going according to plan can feel more confident in trying out and improving upon those plans on their own!


If your students are extra confident in working through challenges, you can even simulate problems that might arise for a particular activity for students to work and navigate through and practice skills like Adaptable Thinking. 


As students build up their skills in approaching tasks in their own way they may find independent work to be more engaging too!

Apply Through Games and Activities

One more explicit way to include EF skills in your curriculum is to build in intentional games and activities during break times, small group breakouts, and waiting time. Brainteasers can help build up Adaptable Thinking skills while downtime is often the perfect time to try out an activity that is meant to assist with building up to more consistent Task Initiation.


Of course, for all we have talked about incorporating various skills into your existing projects, work, and activities, there are also activities focused on EF skills that can be more directly incorporated as a lesson. If you’re interested in some exercises that hone in on EF skills in particular, check out our task cards in the AGU shop! 


Alternately, if you want to focus on specific aspects of EF but can’t seem to find enough activities directly referencing them, check out some of the ideas listed in our Executive Function IEP Idea Bank. Sometimes seeing some of the specific tasks associated with a given EF skill can open up ideas on which new activities will be helpful to incorporate!

Conclusion

Executive functioning skills are something we practice all the time in the classroom whether consciously or not. 


By taking a more active role in incorporating executive functioning skills into the classroom and thinking about how students can be best equipped to build up those skills, we can create more opportunities for growth in a skillset that will benefit any student interested in more effectively managing their own tasks as they approach adulthood. 


Stay tuned for part 3 as we take a closer look at the question of where people looking to build up their executive functioning skills can get started.

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