Executive function is a set of mental skills that include working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control— skills each one of us uses every day to learn, work, and manage our daily lives. Difficulties with executive function can make it hard to focus, follow directions, and handle emotions, among other things. Some people describe executive function as “the management system of the brain,” because the skills involved are so critical to how we set goals, plan, and get things done. When students struggle with executive function, it affects them at home, in school, and in life.
While some students hit their stride in this area, others lag behind, which is why the CCES Middle School decided to address executive function in a purposeful way with 5th grade students. Fresh from the Lower School, they have already begun to develop these skills, but prior to their advancement to sixth grade and a critical phase in adolescent development, fifth grade is an opportune time to hone these skills. “It is vitally important that students learn who they are as learners,” said Angela Allen, Associate Head of School. “Understanding how the brain works and how to exercise the brain are key contributors to how a student successfully navigates school and life.”
Allen, along with Lydia Pettigrew, Middle School Counselor, Hamilton Parks, Assistant Middle School Director, and Kate Fagan, Middle School Director, interviewed fifth grade teachers and conducted a written needs assessment, before surmising and identifying the current needs of their students and developing a plan.
Through mini sessions which take place during a portion of study hall time, students learn about executive functioning skills which include organization of materials, time management, planning and prioritizing tasks, and focusing. They also review and practice social emotional skills which include social skills, active listening, affirming others, responding and sharing, “I” messaging, and communication. The relational piece is not to be overshadowed, it is a key component to improving their executive functioning. Adolescence is a critical time to develop pro-social skills and this is the age they are primed to assimilate. The ability to communicate directly impacts students’ capacity to process information, collaborate in their work, resolve conflicts, and identify their own strengths and weaknesses.
“When we can help our students build their pro-social skills, we are supporting the development of life-long skills that are foundational to future professional and personal successes,” says Pettigrew.
The workshops are conducted by Pettigrew, Parks, Fagan, and Allen. In small group settings (no more than five students), students will participate in one workshop per month throughout the second semester, with fifth grade teachers reinforcing the lessons in the classroom.
Small successes are already presenting. One fifth grade student reports that she took what she learned about active listening home, and put it into practice with her brother. She reports that they are better able to relate to one another, and less arguing as a result. “The benefits of this programming are far-reaching and administrators are confident that the small group lessons will have a direct impact on student performance in the classroom,” said Fagan. “Students need to have a solid foundation of skills to help them be effective learners as they navigate through middle school. Before students can feel success on a science test, or complete a semester long social studies project, they need to have a skill set that will help them be productive. They need to learn how to be organized, initiate tasks, plan out work, manage their time, and have a growth mindset when things get tough!”
But… when the going gets tough, Cavaliers get going!