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7 Strategies to Develop Student Executive Functioning Skills for Remote Learning

By: Lauren Acree on July 15th, 2020

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7 Strategies to Develop Student Executive Functioning Skills for Remote Learning

Teachers  |  Classrooms  |  Virtual Learning

The first time I tried to cook a meal in my own place was a disaster. Within 10 minutes, my kitchen was a disaster. Within an hour, my house smelled charred, and I had abandoned all efforts to cook myself dinner. I called my mom frustrated: what went wrong?

Until that moment, I failed to realize the level of strategic thinking my mother uses every time she cooks. Her successful dishes require intentional preparation, planning, and organizing to achieve the outcome of a satisfying dish. The art of mise en place to smoothly roll out a meal was utterly lost on me. It wasn't until I had this experience, firsthand, that I realized that neglecting to read the whole recipe and then adequately preparing before I cooked results in disaster. Once that pan gets hot there isn't time to dice more onions or cut up the chicken breast. You need to know the next step and be ready ahead of time to add the ingredients quickly. It sounds silly, but no one had explicitly said this out loud to me, and I didn't make the connection on my own.

With the shift to remote learning, many of our students may have had a similar experience with learning that I did with cooking. Teachers do a tremendous amount of work to create the conditions for learning in their classrooms. Just like my mom did, they prepare, plan, and organize learning. From preparing the physical classroom space to support focus to artfully planning directions and visual cues they use to get students from point A to point B, to organizing information in a clear and digestible manner, teachers can use all aspects of their practice to support students through the learning process. However, without a teacher to direct learning and do that instructional mise en place of preparing, planning, and organizing, many of our students struggled. Learning, like my kitchen, got messy, frustrating, and overwhelming.

Executive functioning skills play a significant role in this. Students suddenly had much more autonomy over when, how, and what they learned. This means that success was more dependent on successful self-management and preparation that students haven't necessarily been taught to do on their own to this extent. According to Harvard, "Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.” 

The good news? Executive functioning skills are learned skills. Just like I can learn to prepare and plan by reading the whole recipe from the start and organize by chopping my vegetables before I turn on the stove, students can be taught to self-manage their learning at home.

Executive functioning skills lay the foundation for students to manage their own learning both in the classroom and at home. They are important life skills irrespective of the modality of learning. Below are some strategies you can use to explicitly teach students how to manage their learning when we return to schools so that they can be more successful if/when we go remote again. 

1. Practice makes perfect

If you're starting in-person this fall (and even if you're not), go ahead and set up your routine for using the learning management system. Clarity and consistency matter to students both face to face and online. You know how you always write out the plan for the day on the top left of the whiteboard? You can apply that same idea online putting homework and assignments in the same place in your online learning management system every day and by posting clear directions and expectations online. That way, students aren't having to organize the information from many different places and figure out new content. Bonus: coordinate with your school, grade level team, or department to use the same process and streamline this further for students.

2. Chunk it, say it, post it

Working memory is the part of your brain that holds onto and uses information. When you give directions verbally, you ask students to remember, use, and then access lots of information. To help students with this, when you say a set of directions make sure to break it up into chunks (no more than 2-3 steps at a time is a good rule of thumb) and post directions in an easy to access spot in your online course. If you're only saying it once in person or on a video chat, you're going to have many students spending energy trying to remember the directions so that they may not have the mental space to complete the task. This is a strategy that will support your students’ working memory regardless of where they’re learning! Use the online environment to extend your capacity to support students’ learning (why waste time repeating directions when you can post them online ahead of time?).

3. Use assessment formatting to your advantage

If you're a student who has difficulty with working memory or visual processing, then reading a passage, scrolling to a question, and taking in all of the options before completing the mental task to get the answer right takes up much mental capacity. Rather than forcing scrolling, try formatting your online assessment items to be side by side so that students don't have to scroll and over-rely on their memory. Show students how to do this face-to-face so that they are comfortable with this when they're on their own.

4. Solicit feedback and encourage reflection

Ask students to share their thoughts on the experience of online learning. I've been blown away by how insightful students are around online learning and research shows such reflection can support emotional control, self-regulation, and self-monitoring skills. Consider setting up a routine where every Friday, you ask students to reflect on what worked well and what was hard about the assignments you provided. Ask them what's been challenging and inspiring in their lives. Help them by creating a safe space to reflect and listen to their feedback. Share with students what you’ve done in response to their feedback so that it feels productive for students. Start this practice in person and have them turn it in online from week one.

5. Use rituals to your advantage

Learning something new is hard. Learning something new on your own while staring at a computer is even harder. Explicitly teach students what to do when things go off the rails - have a sound, a movement, or a ritual that students can use when they feel overwhelmed at home without a teacher to run to for support. Rituals or routines can help otherwise emotional experiences take up less space in our brains so we can focus on the task ahead. Build something like this with your students when you are face-to-face with them and continue to model it during your remote lessons to support students' emotional control and inhibition.

6. Create a calendar

While your school may only require 3 hours of synchronous learning during remote learning (or whatever the case may be), offer your students a schedule they can use to self-manage during the day. To teach this to your students explicitly, reference the schedule when you're in the classroom or online. Post the schedule in the same place every day and make sure you use some predictable schedules to support your students' learning. Eventually, you could give students a template they can use to build their own schedules and manage their own learning.

7. Use the checkboxes

Many learning management systems will allow you to create a to-do list for students. Help them plan and prioritize by using this feature to your advantage and, again, use it even when you're in person. Model for your students how to check off activities and think aloud as you do it. For example: "OK, looking at our to-do list for today in the online classroom … We just did the "Learn" portion of the lesson, so I'm going to check that box off. Now it's time for "Practice." Let's click on that to see what's next..." Then, follow up with your students when they're asynchronous. When you notice they didn't check the boxes ask: why didn’t they do it? Did they run out of time? Was there a connectivity issue? Did they get frustrated? Did they just forget to check the box? This data can aid you and can support your students' executive functioning skills.

These are just a few examples of strategies that you can introduce on day one back to school to support executive functions that will carry over to remote learning but serve students well beyond the current crisis. It's imperative to remember that executive functioning skills are learned and are critical to all of our long-term success. If a student is struggling, don't make assumptions about their motivation and, instead, take the time to explicitly model and teach this skill. With planning, preparation, and organization, all students can be successful. If I can learn to successfully prepare a meal from start to finish, your students can learn executive functioning skills to serve them during remote learning and across a lifetime.

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About Lauren Acree

Lauren Acree is a member of the Design and Implementation team. She partners with educators at all levels to meet the needs of all learners and ensure their success. Prior to working with Education Elements, Lauren worked at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at North Carolina State University. During her time at the Friday Institute she partnered with schools and districts implementing digital and personalized learning initiatives. She managed the learning differences programs which built capacity for teachers and students to understand learner variability and design learning experiences that meet the needs of all learners. Lauren also started and led the micro-credentialing program for educators where she developed 50 micro-credentials that received more than 5,000 submissions from educators across the United States. Prior to her work at the Friday Institute, Lauren taught special education in elementary and middle schools in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Lauren received her B.A. from the University of Richmond and her Master in Public Policy from Duke University.

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