Launch into learning

Brain training exercises can strengthen executive function skills for students and adults.

5 min read

Voice of the Educator

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Do you want to make this the most invigorating year yet? Start 2017 with a goal that can reach the learning of all students across the curriculum. A new buzz word in education is executive function. What does it mean? Executive function encompasses all of the everyday tasks we need to accomplish anything — organization, paying attention, planning, controlling those pesky impulses, and remembering the million things on your to-do list. Executive function skills are not just for students, they’re for adults, too. Making executive function a priority in your classroom can extend beyond the school walls. This is a goal you do not want to dismiss like the 50 to 80% of people who may give up on their resolutions this year. 

At Carlisle Area School District in Carlisle, Pa. teachers have been integrating executive function as a hallmark in each classroom. It’s fun, it’s easy, and it works for both students and teachers. The executive dysfunctions many of our students (and even teachers) can struggle with daily are supported around the idea of neuroplasticity or the ability to reshape the brain through experiences.

Our district focuses on creating brain-training opportunities to develop impulse control, sustained attention, task initiation/self monitoring, cognitive flexibility, working memory, and organization/planning to benefit all students, regardless of academic ability level. At LeTort, our teachers even participate in executive function activities to share what works best for us as adults in each of the above areas. What does all this mean? Check out “The 8 Core Cognitive Capacities” and the ACTIVATE program, developed by Dr. Bruce Wexler of Yale University and his team at C8 Sciences. Their research helped target our district’s professional development and integration of executive function into instruction. 

Our teachers have adopted the following best practices to support executive function. Choose a strategy below and see how it works wonders, allowing for more learning opportunities throughout the day.

Executive function surveys: Identifying executive function and dysfunction

  • A variety of checklists can be used to determine areas of need and strength in regards to executive function. Teachers can also use anecdotal records to pinpoint an executive function goal for students and can pull from a variety of strategies to target this particular area.

Tools for controlling impulses, custaining attention, task initiation/self monitoring, and cognitive flexibility:

  • Meta Boxes: We teach students to “Get Meta” short for metacognition and being in a state of understanding one’s emotions and thinking processes. Meta boxes are a bin of materials located in a specific area inside or outside of the classroom. The materials include items such as sensory fidgets, visual or liquid timers, stress balls, velcro, or any type of object that can help calm and refocus the student. Teachers can quietly hand objects to students as they notice a child having difficulty with behaviors or focus, or students can independently get an object as needed.
  • Breathing Buddies: Younger students can lie on the floor and place a stuffed animal on their chest. Have the student slowly breathe in and out, while watching the animal rise and fall in line with their breathing. Older students can control breathing by closing their eyes, taking slow and even deep breaths, and even visualizing a tranquil scene.
  • Music: Calming music can be a very powerful tool as students enter the classroom when transitioning from activities such as recess or lunch, or even between subjects. This sets the stage for learning in a soothing . Having only a few students enter the classroom at a time, verses the whole class, can also shift students into learning mode.

Tools for organization/planning and working memory:

  • Routine Spots: Create designated areas in the room to find learning tools and learning spaces in the room to complete routine activities.
  • Visual Schedules and Checklists: Use pictures to organize your daily schedule. This can be for the whole class or individualized. Taking pictures of a child completing each step in a routine can create independence and faster recall of a process. Students can also use visual flip charts to cycle through or check off as completed.
  • Recording Thoughts: Students can use a recording device, even an iPad, to record their thoughts before sharing an answer to the class. This helps the student focus on the class discussion verses trying to remember a response before being called on. This can also be a helpful tool when writing a story or essay.

Equipping the brain with physical exercises:

  • Relay races, ball tossing with varying directions, and balancing adds another element to students’ brain training.Executive function skills such as following directions, mental flexibility, focus, memory, and impulse control can all be strengthened in these types of activities.

To expand learning for all students (and yourself), incorporate some simple, yet powerful executive function techniques. You can transform your classroom by making brain training an integral part of your culture for learning. Students will not only be eager and motivated, but also armed with the strategies and skills necessary to be successful in 2017 and beyond. 

Heather Luckenbaugh is a reading specialist at LeTort Elementary School in Carlisle, Pa.


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