Executive Function Therapy for Middle and High School Students
The executive function skills including attentional control, cognitive flexibility, self-regulation, inhibition, strategic planning, and impulse control support learning, academic achievement, and behavioral competence. Executive function skills play a critical role in a student's cognitive and social functioning and develop throughout childhood, concurrent with a number of developmental transitions and challenges. Some of these challenges are the transition from elementary to middle school and middle school to high school. These school transitions require cognitive and behavioral adjustment and often it involves not only a physical change in location (often to a whole new school setting), but also changes in instructional format, a more complex schedule, increases in the number of teachers, decreases in perceived teacher/parent support, increases in class sizes, changes in peer groups, and increased expectations for individual responsibility.
There is the expectation that students can with greater independence plan, start and complete tasks on and within time demands. They need to be able to follow multi-step directions, identify and keep track of materials as they transition in and between classes and to and from school. As students mature, they are expected to with increasing independence to record, track and turn in homework assignments. Not only do they need to manage an increase in the volume of homework, but as they mature through the grades, homework may not just be due the next day, but is due in several days or over several weeks. Oh, and not to mention some students may have to balance these demands with sports, music, extracurricular and other social activities! Their schedule during the day can be busy, complex, and structured while at the same time they might have blocks of free time. Students must plan, prioritize and remember steps and actively initiate/motivate and minimize procrastination to use these periods of free time effectively. It is a lot to track! How can students learn to manage their impulses (not respond to every phone notification or play that video game), delay immediate gratification (watch the latest episode on Netflix), and just get to work?
While parents may play a large supervisory role over homework and materials in elementary school, there is more of a 'hands off' expectation as students transition into middle school and especially through high school. Students need to learn to regularly 'self-check' and be aware of how they are doing in school, recognize if they need help or are behind, and then know how and when to ask for extra support. As assignments become more open-ended, multi-step, or complicated students can feel overwhelmed. If one approach to an assignment is not working, kids need to be flexible to shift direction and or consider alternative approaches. Although adolescence is a time when students push to be as independent as possible, those with lagging executive function skills may still require someone to play a supervisory role and help break down and monitor task completion.
Similarly, in elementary school, the number of students assigned to a teacher is often less making it easier for the teacher to observe, model, and teach executive function skills. However, at the secondary level teachers may have multiple classes and a higher number of total students (120+). Teachers may assume students are coming into middle and high school having learned how to set goals, plan and prioritize tasks, organize their time, materials, and information, and how to monitor their own progress. Students may quickly feel overwhelmed or incompetent when they have not mastered these skills but are expected to be more independent. While students have the academic ability, their inability to effectively use their executive skills to manage and hand in homework, organize materials, prepare for tests and meet the competing demands of multiple teachers can impact their academic progress, confidence, and self-esteem.
To manage the transitions at each grade level and develop their executive function skills, it is critical students be taught as an integral part of their education, how to schedule and use a calendar to track class assignments, projects, due dates, and tests. Students need to learn the process of planning and 'tuning in' to the passage of time to be able to self-monitor attention and minimize distractions.
At Cognitive Connections, we use our 360 Thinking method to not merely compensate for, but to truly help students neurologically mature and learn the process of how to:
Navigate School Learning Platforms
Use and regularly access a Learning Management System such as Google Classroom or Canvas to view assignments, submit and resubmit assignments. How to access and use teacher feedback.
How to integrate online homework posting with an academic planner or paper agenda book.
Create and routinely use a calendar system to track assignments, deadlines, obligations, and personal activities and interests.
The process of how to schedule daily tasks and find time to balance school obligations and personal interests. How to plan assignments, projects, and test preparation steps over the course of days and weeks. Learn how to handle and rearrange schedules to accommodate unexpected changes. This is a critical cognitive flexibility skill for college and or work settings.
Focus and Plan Hourly Time
Time management skills: how to see and sense the passage time, recognize distractions and proactively implement time savers, estimate how long tasks will take, create and follow time markers to complete work on time. How to keep track of more than one thing at a time. Help students regulate their attention and focus, know when they are distracted and how to practice re-directing their attention back to the task.
How to break down assignment instructions. How to identify a 'Done Goal' or the endpoint of a task, and plan backward the steps required to achieve the goal. Then identify the materials needed, pre-determine possible obstacles and solutions toward task completion, and create the work mindset and internal self-talk to initiate the steps of a task and prevent task avoidance.
Strategies to organize personal books, backpacks, and personal materials. How to pre-determine the materials needed for classes and tasks.
Develop systems for accessing, storing, and passing in homework assignments and papers for class. How to clean personal spaces and set up and evaluate systems for keeping spaces organized.
Techniques to organize digital files, documents, and email communication.
Reading, Writing, and Working Memory
Active reading strategies to improve inferencing, and summarization skills.
Reading becomes more complex at the secondary level and students must learn how to be cognitively flexible to consider character/author perspective, draw conclusions, interpret subtle/nuanced language and integrate/make connections between learning contexts/materials/points of view.
Improve working memory skills to follow directions, summarize text, take notes in class, retain concepts for exams
Write for school: essays, summarize short/long answers for exams. How to learn and independently access strategies to retrieve and organize ideas for written expression
Prepare for Exams
Prepare for quizzes and tests: how to use and or create a study guide.
How to create and use memory strategies, techniques for reviewing information to move it from short to long-term memory stores.
Help students analyze their test performance to understand patterns and prepare for future exams.
How to create a study plan and set up an environment for effective studying.
Self-monitor to reflect on their own work, recognize errors, recognize patterns, and use teacher feedback to avoid repeating mistakes and inform future performance. Understand their own learning profile and how to organize and access strategies for tasks. Teach students to self-advocate for their IEP or 504 and ask teachers for accommodations and modifications.
Self-advocate: consistently check-in and know where they stand in each class, know when to ask for help and what to ask.
Create systems for storing and knowing how to access and use learning strategies.