Make It Explicit: The Key to Teaching Executive Functions

by Chris Sturgis

Ninth-grade students assemble a robot in an engineering class at MC2 STEM High School.
Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

If a student is having difficulties staying focused, getting work done, or organizing points for

an issue, don’t assume that they aren’t trying. They may simply not know how to do it. They need help building their executive functions. 

Developing our executive function skills is a lifelong process, although in general we only focus on it in childhood. We also make the assumption that parents are primarily responsible. But it’s likely they’ve never been taught how to teach executive functions and most likely don’t even know the term.

Executive function skills are one of the core sets of processes that students need to become expert learners. It doesn’t have to be an add on to your units. You can weave it into how you introduce new units and activities. The key to teaching executive functions is making everything explicit.

Making the learning process explicit means that teachers need to introduce topics including such as: What are executive function skills? Why is each one important? How do we learn to do it? What type of practice do students need?  And students need to practices the skills.  

The shift for teachers is to constantly make the learning process explicit. One of the tools I’ve seen in many classrooms is “standard operating procedure” posters that outline a process. It might be how to plan for your task  or how to edit your paper. There will be posters everywhere with steps and question prompts to guide students. 

There are lots of books out there you can read. But I’d start with what you can find on the web. For example,  A Guide to Executive Function from the Center of the Developing Child, Harvard University provides an excellent overview. Many have also recommended David Conley’s overview of teaching strategies.  

If you want to just get your toes wet, turn to Edutopia. They have several articles including Helping Students Develop Executive Function Skills and Guiding Students to Improve Executive Functioning Skills about secondary school students. (If you search by the different executive function skills or learning strategies you can find a lot there.) Or you may like to hear directly from teachers sharing their strategies such as 15 Ways to Teach Executive Functioning Skills to give you some ideas to get started. 

If you are interested in going deeper on the research here are two articles that you might find interesting: 

If you come across a great resource, please pass it on to me so that I can keep sharing with others.

  • Chris Nesmith of Elma School District has recommended the work of Ellen Galinsky at Mind in the Making. She organizes her training around 7 skills: focus and self-control; perspective taking; communicating; making connections; critical thinking; taking on challenges; and, self-directed engaged learning.

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