Beyond the Classroom: Honing Student Executive Functioning Skills

Posted on Thursday, July 28th, 2022

Graphic of person walking up purple steps labeled "Pack Up Gear," "Leave School," "Walk to Practice," "Prepare to Play," "Soccer Practice."In January, the Blue Cluster introduced an executive functioning after school class to provide more explicit support for students who have executive function challenges.

The class, taught by Head Teacher Rebecca Felt and Assistant Teacher Catherine Thomas, met two times a week and focused on skills to help prepare students for high school, higher education, and beyond.

Executive functions are a set of processes that have to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. The processes include sustained attention, working memory, inhibition, shifting from one task to another, initiating tasks, self monitoring, abstract reasoning, categorization, planning, and organization.

Assistant Head of School Jill Thompson said, “It came about primarily based on need, and seeing that some of our students did require more of that explicit instruction, and sometimes one-to-one support around executive function skills. We particularly saw the need in wanting to give students with these challenges an additional push to help them feel more prepared for high school, and that’s why we started with the Blue Cluster.”

While executive functioning skills are built into the curriculums at Gaynor, this class helps to provide more explicit instruction, ongoing support, and practice for students who need it.

Ms. Felt said that executive functioning isn’t just an important academic skill, but it’s also an important life skill. “There’s a lot of content students learn in middle school, but probably the most important thing that a middle schooler learns are student skills that they can then apply to high school. The class gives more intensive support for students who struggle with executive functioning within a small group environment.”

The curriculum was built on the foundation of Sarah Ward’s 360 Thinking Curriculum for Developing Independent Executive Function Skills and then“Gaynorized.” Ms. Ward’s work was discussed during a fall parent talk by Ms. Thompson and Director of Psychology Dr. Clare Cosentino, specifically focusing on the “Get Ready*Do*Done” model, which has students begin a task by visualizing the end product, and then planning out the rest of the columns based on reaching that goal.

Ms. Felt said, “We used some of Sarah Ward’s materials in terms of thinking about after school time in 15-minute increments and adding in the commute time, or adding in how long it typically takes to get ready to then go.Most kids can say, ‘Oh, I have soccer practice after school,’ but they might be late for soccer practice every single time because they don’t think about the steps to get there.”

She said she feels really committed to working with students on these skills, because she knows from experience how frustrating it can be to struggle with executive functioning.

“Executive functioning is an area where I struggled as a student, and it’s support I wish I had in middle school, because I really had to figure out a lot of this on my own,” Ms. Felt said. “They’re definitely life skills that are really important to work on.”

Ms. Thompson said this class allows the school to really hone in on the executive function skills that are specific to each student, and to build students’ toolbox of strategies so they can become more independent learners.

“We’re building success for academics for ultimately future goals,” she said. “These are skills that are going to support them not only in high school, but college, higher education, and important life skills for jobs and relationships.”

The program will be expanded next year with an added class in Green Cluster. The skills will be scaffolded to address where students are developmentally, but still with the goal of giving them time, support, and explicit instruction.

“I think we have a lot of really smart students, and students for whom the barrier of time management and knowing where their resources are and breaking down projects can be really frustrating,” Ms. Felt said, “so having a class that focuses on these types of skills can be helpful for students to really unlock their true potential.”