This one goes out to all the teachers who are looking for ways to support Executive Functioning without giving up your carefully planned lesson times. I work with a lot of K-8 teachers who are always on the lookout for quick and easy ways to target foundational EF skills within their existing classroom routines. The thing is, EF isn’t something you do separate from your regular curriculum. The more you know about EF, the better you get at realizing that so much of what teachers are already doing is supporting and improving students’ skills. It’s like a hidden super power! The goal of this post is to help teachers become more intentional about using their otherwise lost minutes of transition time to keep that EF momentum going!
Let’s say you have two minutes between the end of your math lesson and the lunch bell. What do you do?
(a) Tell students to take out a book and read
(b) Play the “quiet game”
(c) Use an EF tuck-in exercise
(d) Let absolute chaos reign
Using our own inferential skills, let’s examine the likely outcomes of each scenario:
(a) Your announcement = 20 seconds, getting out books = 40 seconds, opening to the right page = 15 seconds, reading one paragraph = 25 seconds …then…time to clean up (followed by copious amounts of “grumble grumble grumble”). Effective? I think not!
(b) Students are annoyed with having to be quiet, you’re annoyed they can’t be quiet…who wins at the quiet game? No one!
(c) Students have fun and improve their EF skills!
(d) Total destruction of the classroom (and your sanity).
In case you’re still scratching your head, I’ll give you a hint: the answer is C. There are countless EF teachable moments (and I do mean moments) during a typical school day: lessons end a little early, students need something to keep them busy in line, you name it! Here are some ideas to turn those lost minutes into EF learning treasure troves, while simultaneously supporting general education skills.
EF Tuck-Ins for Cognitive Flexibility
- Word Association: Begin by saying a random word. Snake through all students in the class, having each student say the first thing that comes to their mind when they hear the word from the student just before them. This fun game strengthens association pathways in the brain and supports cognitive flexibility during conversations (i.e., the ability to connect to others’ ideas).
- Two-Word Association: Create a jar of random words. During the tuck-in, select two words from the jar and ask a student to come up with some way those words can be related. This task encourages strong concept association and mental flexibility.
- Ask students to generate antonyms, synonyms, or a shade of meaning (i.e., a word that means slightly more or less intense than the provided word) for a target word. For example, if the word is happy, the antonym could be sad, the synonym could be glad, and the shade of meaning could be content (less intense) or excited (more intense).
- Ask students to respond to yes/no questions with an answer that doesn’t involve yes or no (e.g., “Do you like carrots?” response: “Only when they are dipped in ranch”). This task requires engagement of “slow thinking” over automatic “fast thinking.”
EF Tuck-Ins for Working Memory (all tasks done verbally)
- Ask students to repeat back increasingly longer sequences of numbers in the opposite order of how you give them (e.g., if you say “3-5-7-2,” students say “2-7-5-3”).
- Give students a target word and ask whether various letters are in the word. This requires students to hold the word in their mind while scanning it for letters.
- Ask students to verbally spell a target word forwards, then backwards. Switch between common, overlearned words and grade-level vocabulary or spelling words.
EF Tuck-Ins for Inferential Thinking
- Provide three attributes of a secret object and ask students to make a smart guess about the object you’re describing (e.g., it’s white, it comes from a cow, you drink it). The more nuanced the clues, the more challenging the task.
- Provide students with an obscure word that has a commonly known root (or a word in a different language). Ask them to make a smart guess about the meaning of the word based on a recognizable root.
EF Tuck-Ins for Problem Solving
- Provide age-appropriate What Would You Do scenarios to students (e.g., “What would you do if your friend got an ugly hair cut and asked what you thought?” or “What would you do if you were invited to a party and didn’t want to attend?”), and ask them to generate the most expected response they can think of.
- Ask students to judge the grammaticality of a sentence. If it’s incorrect, ask them to correct it.
- Present If…Then verbal problems for students to solve (e.g., If Jenny is shorter than Billy, Billy is shorter than Mark, William is taller than Tony, and Mark is the same height as Tony, who is the tallest?”).
EF Tuck-Ins for Categorization
- Provide four+ words or numbers to all students. Ask the students to determine how they can be sorted into two+ categories based on attributes, functions, locations, materials, appearance, etc. You can use random words/numbers or ones that relate to a current lesson.
- Provide four words that all connect through a shared attribute except for one. Ask students to identify which one word does not belong and why. The more nuanced the isolating difference, the more challenging this task will be.
- Provide a category to students (e.g., animals, literary genres, Greek Gods, vehicle types, colors, etc.) and ask them to generate as many items as they can that belong in that category in a given amount of time.
EF Tuck-Ins for Gestalt vs. Details
- Show a picture scene to the whole class. Ask each student to write or say the gestalt (i.e., big idea) of the picture scene and the three most relevant details that support the gestalt. This helps students improve part vs. whole awareness and how parts are relevant to the whole.
- Ask students to tell as many parts of an object as they can think of (e.g., parts of a tree: roots, trunk, branches, leaves, etc.). Encourage students to use a strategy to determine parts (e.g., move from the bottom to the top of the object, move from small to large parts, etc.).
Here’s to a whole new, EF-filled school year!