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Why Savvy Teachers are Focused on Executive Function This Fall

Teachers are Being Asked to Do Even More This Fall

If you’re brave enough to try Googling “going back to school this fall”, you’ll get over 2 BILLION results. And while there are countless predictions about how learning will be delivered amidst the pandemic, the only certainty is that teachers will bear much of the burden. The list of requirements for teachers is already daunting. They’ll have to: 

  • Master the delivery of both face to face and distance learning;
  • Create engaging, online, differentiated learning content that addresses each individual child’s needs;
  • Develop a system to assess and ensure student accountability;
  • Support students’ SEL needs and development while taking care of their own mental health needs;
  • Create a plan for the first 3 months of school that includes relationship-building and classroom management…

…and we’re giving them maybe a month to complete it all. It doesn’t take a veteran teacher to tell you that this burden is overwhelming. Where, as a teacher, do you even begin?

Success this Fall is About Classroom Management

My recommendation is to start at the very start: with a focus on students’ states of mind and classroom management

The teachers with whom I have spoken have, for the most part, mentioned two big concerns when it comes to classroom management:

“I am going to have to run my class on a Zoom, and kids have to sit still, pay attention, and have a screen-learning skill set and I am not sure they have it yet.”

“I am going to have to deal with parents who are upset and might not be cooperative in this new way of learning.”

It’s all about Executive Function, the root of SEL

These concerns get down to the bare essentials of social emotional competencies (SEL) and less about academics. Specifically, they concern students’ and parents’ executive function (EF) – the underpinning of SEL –  our working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility

Understanding the science of EF solves the big problem of making sure children achieve SEL growth and academic success in a classroom, and also mitigates smaller everyday battles: 

  • Sitting still and paying attention? Inhibitory control.
  • Frustrated parents in a new system? Cognitive flexibility.
  • Remembering that the Zoom class meets Tuesdays at 2:00 pm? Working memory.
  • Abiding by social distancing rules when you want to hug your best friend? Inhibitory control. 

If a student is not at an age-appropriate EF level and any of these skills is weak, the foundation of  the remote learning environment of our classrooms will not support student learning. 

Savvy Teachers Know How to Teach and Improve EF Skills

Thankfully, EF skills can be taught and reinforced at any age and a savvy teacher will use that to her advantage during an uncertain time like this. Simple games in early grades like Red Light! Green Light! or Freeze Dance can help with inhibitory control and switching between addition and subtraction exercises in math class can develop cognitive flexibility. For older students, working on organization by using a planner can strengthen working memory while using riddles and puzzles increase problem solving skills that enhance cognitive flexibility. Additionally, for students experiencing Trauma due to the latest social environment, solid routines and a predictable day will redirect the brain away from stress and into healthy, natural growth and pruning of essential neural pathways. 

Free EF Resources for Teachers

For those educators that are not fully aware of EF and how it can affect learning and behavior in our schools and buildings, Reflection Sciences offers a number of free resources. Their free introductory course “What the EF?” takes about 30-45 minutes to complete, can be done on your phone, and provides a digital badge credential. Reflection Sciences also has free activities for improving EF, and even a free mobile app that measures a student’s EF in less than 5 minutes.  

Managing various behaviors and the learning loss that children may experience after a lack of formal instruction and insufficient socialization is a burden teachers face. However, by understanding EF and the impact it has on student behavior and achievement, teachers will be better prepared to manage their classrooms effectively in this new online learning environment.

About the Author:

Carrie FruinCarrie Fruin is the Director of Curriculum and Instruction for Reflection Sciences and holds an Education Specialist Degree in the area of Leadership in Digital Transformation. She taught high school science for over 25 years and has worked in higher education building high quality, online professional development programs for teachers. She has a strong belief that all students can learn, and it is through the understanding of Executive Function (EF) skills and their relationship to Social-emotional learning (SEL) that will assist educators in reaching all children and providing them a true foundation for success in life.

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