Teaching Children Executive Skills

  • by Kelly Harmon & Randi Anderson
  • Sept. 10, 2017, 3:59 p.m.

While at the International Literacy Association Conference this summer, I attended a session that focused on helping struggling readers develop executive skills for academic success. Kelly Cartwright, author of Executive Skills and Reading Comprehension, A Guide for Educators, made a research-based case that many students are not experiencing success because of underlying issues. These executive function issues are not evident of the surface, but can easily be identified and addressed. Her research has found that executive skills begin to develop early and are a good predictor of proficient reading in grades two and beyond.

Harvard University defines executive skills as "skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully."

Executive skills help us make decisions, self regulate, and prioritize tasks. These are all real world skills that successful people execute well.

Students who have executive skills are able to read strategically and apply their new knowledge to their world. Harvard University also says "children are not born with these skills- they are born with the potential to develop them." It is important to teach students the thinking processes that develop executive skills such as developing working memory, mental flexibility, and self control. Teaching this thought process goes hand and hand with the habits of the mind and teaching to have a growth mind set.

This year, we will feature one or two executive functions. We will define the skill and offer ideas for assessing and developing the skill.

Planning is a great skill to start with. Good readers plan to comprehend. They know why they are reading and plan to accomplish their goal. To assess this skill, engage students in activities that require planning. Watch students as they play games like Connect 4 and Jenga. Are they planning moves? If not, it's time to have a discussion about thinking we do to plan to accomplish a goal. What is the goal? What is the purpose of the game? What can they do to win? Discuss the idea of planning for success. This thinking can be connected to everything they do.

Before reading, ask students how they plan to comprehend the book. Have students discuss their thinking. What is the purpose (or goal) for the reading? How can previewing the text help activate existing prior knowledge and generate goal-oriented questions to answer during the reading. If you start with a plan, you are almost guaranteed to comprehend more and achieve your goal. As my father taught me, you've got to make a plan and work the plan in order to achieve the dream.

For more information on executive skills, visit the Center on the Developing Child.

Kelly Harmon and Randi Anderson

About The Authors

Kelly Harmon & Associates began in 2001 with a mission of instructional coaching and providing rich literacy resources for educators and parents. Our work incorporates research-based best practices for teaching and learning.

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