I have written before about how when I do group counseling, I always make it about building positive traits rather than having students join the Anger Management Gang or the Oppositional Club. So instead of working on our ANGER or RULE FOLLOWING (fun!) we work on planning a group project together, and then when someone gets angry or breaks a rule, we solve the problem right then and there. As I’m recruiting for my “Girls’ Talent Group” this year, I thought back to my group of 6th grade girls from last year, who accidentally planned the worst party ever as their project. I have never seen such sad little faces when after 10 weeks of procrastinating planning, avoiding delegating tasks to each other, and arguing about what they should do, they ended up planning nothing.
I tried everything to get them to plan. I even made them trace their feet and think of what “steps” they needed to take to plan a party. They like the tracing of feet, but then their tasks were “Whatever” and “Whatever needs to be done.” Despite my efforts to help them bring it all together, they really thought the party would plan itself. The day of the party, there we were, sitting alone in a classroom. Worse yet, the Boys’ Talent Group had just had a kickin’ party complete with movie and pizza and hot sauce.* The real lesson began when we processed why the party didn’t come together.
“We played around too much.”
“We didn’t listen.”
“We got lazy.”
“This is the worse party ever and it’s all our fault!”**
Why did these girls fail to follow through? Was the task beyond their skills? The boys were the same age and they pulled together a party (albeit last minute). The answer may lie in these particular students’ personalities, or even their level of Executive Functioning skills (the ability to plan, organize, and prioritize). Developing these skills is the hallmark of adolescence, and it is not an easy process. It is hard, if not impossible, to speed up frontal lobe development, and often, adults function as kids’ frontal lobes for a while, as we teach them how to do adult tasks like thinking through consequences and planning accordingly. What seems so obvious to us has to be taught.
So how can teachers help their students with these important Executive Functioning skills?
1) First, understand that “Executive Functioning” is actually a number of skills, not just one skill a student has or does not have. Some of the skills that middle and high school students are working on are: paying attention for longer periods of time, starting tasks on their own, controlling impulses and emotions, planning, strengthening their short-term memory, and inhibiting responses(do THIS, not THAT).
2) Remember that it takes over TWO DECADES for executive functioning skills to develop. We should not expect students to have these skills or be able to apply them on a consistent basis. Sometimes, Executive Functioning skills are thought of as the Mini Executive of a company in the brain who makes all the decisions, like a CEO. Now think about whether or not you would put a 12 year old in charge of a company?*** Even under optimal conditions (like my group where I scaffolded every single step) these skills take YEARS to develop.
3) Think of executive skills as being on a continuum. A student can be poor at sustaining attention, good at initiating tasks, or just okay at planning a long-term project.
4) Be explicit when you teach an “Executive Functioning Skill,” and don’t teach too many skills at once. Pick one to focus on, such as task initiation, and say why you are teaching it: “We are working on how to start a task you don’t know how to do, because there will be times when you have to solve problems on your own.”
5) Think of middle school and young high school students as “Zen.” They are in the moment. That is normal. When you were 13, were you thinking of your 10 year plan? No. You were thinking about how cute Jason was in English class that day. Or at least I was.
6) Include the students in planning and give them an active role in decision making. So if your class is working on a class-wide project, have the students come up with roles, tasks, and deadlines. Make everything visual. It’s better if the kids make it visual. Even though it flopped, I still liked the “Steps” activity.
7) Utilize visual checklists. So if your students are having problems remembering what homework to do and what materials they need, make a checklist together that you go over at the end of the class and have them check off when they have written down the assignment, checked their backpack for any books they need, placed the homework in the appropriate folder, put the folder in the backpack, etc etc. It sounds so basic, doesn’t it? For some kids, it really isn’t, and they need to be reminded how to do it. This is where all teachers go to heaven for their patience.
8) Make a Classwork Planning Sheet, in which the students write down the assignment, the materials they need, make a prediction about how long it will take to complete the assignment, identify what they need in order to stay focused on the task, note when they plan to start and when they actually started and finished, then evaluate how they did and note what they could have done differently the next time. All these steps will eventually go “underground” in their frontal lobes, but for many adolescents, they must be explicit.
9) Remember that our role in teaching executive functioning skills is to be the instructor and safety net. We must resist the urge to be the helicopter, hovering over and rescuing the kids before their plans fall through. Processing why the girls’ party was so lame was a far more valuable learning experience than if I had planned the whole thing when they failed to do so. What would they have learned? That when they don’t follow through, it doesn’t matter because someone will do it for you.
10) Make sure that you think of teaching executive functioning skills as a circle of Planning, Executing, and Evaluating. If I had stopped without the evaluation part, the girls wouldn’t have learned what didn’t work.
*I know. Gross. They planned it, and I obliged. I then witnessed the fun middle school boy game of “Who can make their pizza unbearably hot and eat it anyway!”
**It really was. I couldn’t bear it after 30 minutes of our Pity Party, and bust out some leftover snacks from the boys’ party, and we went outside to play a little bit. It softened the tough lesson, I know, but I do think that some celebration is important when a group ends.
***Besides if you are a 12 year old who gets turned into Tom Hanks and you are put in charge of a toy company. Then, it’s okay.