How to Learn Better: Three Steps for Teaching Executive-Functioning Skills

Teaching Executive Thinking Skills

Executive functions are the most important skills your child will need for success in the 21st century. More than math, technology, or science knowledge, executive-functioning skills will be needed by kids to manage themselves and the vasts amounts of information with which they will be presented in the upcoming decades. Executive functions are the “how-to” skills that help kids and adults manage their lives and get things done, whether it be performing well in school or getting a job that is personally and financially rewarding. These are the skills that robots, artificial intelligence, and technology cannot replace. However, you will rarely see an executive-function skills class being taught at your local elementary school. While a few books are available for parents and educators, these tend to explain why executive functions are vital but neglect the crucial steps of how to teach them. A handy guide to understanding executive functions can be found in our listing of “​Thinking Skills​.” While it is not easy to teach these skills, teaching executive functions is a skill many parents should master.

Before using our three steps for teaching executive functions, determine what your child needs. Teaching these skills to many kids may be unnecessary, as they can learn them on their own by modeling, observing, learning from mistakes, and asking questions. Kids who are most successful in understanding and applying executive skills to school and experiences appear to have more awareness of when they are using these skills. They can think about how they might employ executive skills in specific situations and, most noteworthy, are often able to recognize how, where, and when to apply them in new situations.

But for many kids, particularly those with ADHD, ASD, LD, and social-emotional struggles, executive skills need to be taught (and retaught), and the capacity to transfer or generalize executive skills learned from one situation to another is limited. This can be very frustrating for parents and the kids themselves. They keep forgetting where they put their homework, cannot manage their time, and are inflexible in their problem solving, even though they have worked on these skills many times before.

These ongoing executive “dysfunctions” occur because we do not routinely employ strategies to improve the ​t​ransfer and generalization​ of skills when we are teaching them. Kids who acquire executive skills easily through their awareness, thinking about, and practice of these skills are good guides to helping those who struggle. Here are a few strategies we have learned from them that follow the model in our ​LW4K LIVE program​ ​and what you might expect when you use them:

Help children identify when they use executive functions​: Help your children to pay attention to when they are using a specific skill and then be able to identify it in other situations. For example, children who are working hard to get their homework done so they can go outside to play are using time-management skills. Identify when they are using this skill and describe it to them. Make a game of having them identify other situations where they need to use time-management skills. We call this the “DETECT” step. You can’t use a skill routinely unless you can recognize it.

Encourage routine thinking about how executive skills help at home and school​. Study after study​ demonstrates that real, long-term learning is the result of metacognition – thinking about thinking. We learn best not simply by repetition, but by thinking about what we are learning and recognizing how it is helpful. Ask your children how being aware of time constraints impacted their opportunity to play with their friends after school. We call this the “REFLECT” step. You are unlikely to use a skill routinely unless you can understand how it will help in targeted situations.

Practice skills across an ever-expanding range of situations​. Practicing a skill in a variety of settings helps with achieving what psychologists refer to as “far transfer.” It’s good if children master time-management skills that allow them to have time to play with friends after school on a regular basis, but it’s GREAT if they learn to manage their time so they can get enough sleep or have time to practice their instrument before their lessons. This type of generalization requires regular practice and learning to apply the acquired executive skills in other circumstances. We call this the “CONNECT” step. Children learn to apply the skill they can recognize and consider as helpful in an effective manner.

Our team at LW4K can help. Sign your child up for a ​few of our classes​. You’ll see how having fun playing with games and apps can be transformed into learning the most critical skills for 21st-century kids. We suggest you identify areas of weaknesses in your child’s social-emotional or executive functioning skills and choose a class that addresses some of these concerns.

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