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Boost Executive Function Skills to Add Instructional Time to Your Day

Executive Function skill training and the use of metacognitive learning strategies has become a hot topic in education. Executive functions are a group of processes that allow us to self-regulate the ways in which we interact with our environment and help us to succeed academically and behaviorally.

As educators, we know that sound executive function skills are vital for student success and can be taught through explicit strategic instruction. These skills will be needed throughout one’s lifetime as they allow us to set goals and successfully achieve those goals. Without these skills, students do not experience appropriate executive function growth and have difficulties when it comes to using working memory, organizing, prioritizing, focusing, initiating, communicating, self-regulating, etc. Also, students do not outgrow executive function difficulties, and as years pass, the lack of success experienced by a student with executive function skill deficits can lead to entry into a downward spiral of poor self-esteem, a feeling of failure, and unwillingness to try something new, etc.

It is rare that a student has only one executive function skill deficit, and it is not likely that the student will improve these difficulties on their own.  Yet, the same question surfaces when it comes to teaching executive function skills: “When is there time to teach executive function skills when the school day is already filled with curriculum demands?”

The answer to this question is, “How can you not find the time?”

Think about how much instructional time you lose each day because students with executive function issues often exhibit trouble:

  • Remembering instructions
  • Focusing on their work
  • Initiating a task in a timely manner
  • Self-regulating their actions
  • Prioritizing a series of tasks needing completion
  • Managing their time
  • Communicating their academic and emotional needs

When students have their executive function skills in place, this allows for increased instructional time. Teaching executive function skills allows you to be proactive rather than reactive, and there are some natural times during daily instruction at the elementary, middle, and high school level when executive function skill training can be taught without detracting from instructional time. For example, executive function skills can be taught with metacognitive learning strategies when establishing classroom routines and expectations, supporting content instruction, setting parameters for group discussions, prioritizing tasks in need of completion, etc.

Executive function strategies that address classroom routines and expectations are typically presented to the entire class, and students experience success using these strategies, they are more willing to continue to learn more. SWT and STA are two versatile executive function metacognitive learning strategies that are quick to teach and easy for the student to learn and use. Using these versatile strategies can make a world of difference in terms of student learning resulting in more instructional time.

Let’s explore these strategies in terms of best practice for how they should be explicitly taught and practiced. We will then discuss each strategy and its versatility.

Explicit Strategic Instruction

When students experience difficulty in using strategies, it is often because they were not explicitly taught. In addition, the “I Do, We Do, You Do” Approach (Hughes, et al., 2019) is a vital component of explicit instruction. The “I Do, We Do, You Do” approach emphasizes modeling, prompting and guided practice, checking for understanding during guided practice, and independent practice. During the “I Do” phase, the teacher uses metacognition and self-talk while modeling how the strategy should and should not look. It is during the “We Do’ phase that the teacher and students practice the strategy together. The teacher provides guided practice and checks for understanding. Lastly, the “You Do” phase is when the student acquires full responsibility for use of the strategy.

SWT and STA Two Versatile Metacognitive Learning Strategies

The SWT and STA strategies focus on self-regulation and are taught using the “I Do, We Do, You Do” Approach. Students who can self-regulate are more independent and require fewer reminders throughout the day.

The SWT (Stop, Wait, Talk) Metacognitive Learning Strategy

SWT stands for Stop, Wait, Talk. This strategy has 3 simple steps for the student to remember and follow:

  1. Stop to think before you say something.
  2. Wait and decide if what you are about to say is appropriate.
  3. Talk, if you decide that what you are going to say is appropriate. If it is not appropriate, change it or do not talk.

The STA (Stop, Think, Act) Metacognitive Learning Strategy

The STA strategy also has 3 steps:

  1. Stop before you act.
  2. Think about the action you want to take. Is it appropriate?
  3. Act, if it is appropriate. If not, do not take action.

Remembering Strategies Learned

As students learn each strategy, they need multiple opportunities to practice it.  They also need a way to store the strategy for easy access because they will learn multiple strategies and use them in different environments. A Strategy Support Reminder Sheet, either virtual or hard copy, can be used to  provide a description of the strategy, steps  and how it will help them. The student stores this into a Strategy Toolbox.

SWT and STA are strategies that support student self-regulation, and with some creative adaptations these two strategies can support other executive function skills. We know that students usually have more than one executive function area of deficit and therefore, if a strategy can be used to address multiple executive function areas, it becomes a powerful tool for the student. For example:

The SWT (STOP, WAIT, TALK) and STA (STOP, THINK, ACT) Strategies were initially designed as inhibiting and self-regulation strategies, but they can also address these executive function skills…

  • Working Memory – when the student needs to remember the expected action or procedure before they can appropriately act.
  • Communicating – using these strategies gives a student time to process what has been said and gather their thoughts before talking or acting.
  • Focusing – when the student needs to focus on the topic at hand to share their appropriate thoughts or to act appropriately.
  • Social/Emotional – using these strategies encourages the student to think of the feelings of others.

We challenge you to draw upon your creativity and decide how you can weave executive function skill training throughout your school day to increase students’ self-regulation. You will find the benefits of executive function training to far outweigh the time used for skill training!


References:

Hughes, C. A., Riccomini, P. J., & Morris, J. R. (2019). Use explicit instruction. In J. McLeskey, L. Maheady, B. Billingsley, M. T. Brownell, & T. J. Lewis (Eds.), High leverage practices for inclusive classrooms (pp. 215–236). Routledge.

Written by

Valerie Saxton Sharpe works as an educational consultant in the areas of cognitive disabilities, executive functioning, and teacher preparation. 

Dr. Roberta Atha Strosnider, Professor Emerita in Special Education, currently works as an educational consultant in the areas of executive functioning, learning disabilities, and teacher preparation.

Together, Val and Roberta wrote Everyday Executive Function Strategies and The Executive Function Guidebook. They have also co-founded Project Boost, a program to help students use metacognitive strategies to boost their executive function skills.  They wrote and co-taught a curriculum that provides executive function skill training for students K-12 by building skills through a 7-Step Model.

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