The Executive Function Skill Gap between Elementary and Middle School
Updated: Nov 11
SEL, encompasses not only social and emotional competencies, but also some of the important cognitive skills - often referred to as executive function skills ("EF") - critical in helping children be successful in school and in life. “EF” skills, which comprise working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control and can be considered the “air traffic control system of the brain.”* They are used to learn, work, and manage daily life and include skills such as paying attention, organizing, planning and prioritizing, starting tasks and staying focused to completion, understanding different points of view, regulating emotions and self-monitoring.
The transition from elementary school to middle school presents a significant challenge to students' executive function skills. It is this transition (typically around ages 10 and 11) where students face greater organizational demands. They must manage more homework and longer-term assignments, study for quizzes and tests, and juggle the demands of several teachers. Coming from the nurturing and supportive climate of elementary school, where students typically have one classroom teacher, this can be a difficult transition where many students are left to flounder. To extend the air traffic control metaphor, for some kids this can feel like a promotion from managing a small airstrip to running the tower at JFK.
Elementary school teachers do many things to support the development of EF skills, including posting a daily schedule, maintaining a system of classroom organization, and playing games that develop working memory and self-regulation. However, a more cohesive, intentional program can be invaluable and can help set students up for middle school success. To do this, it's important to take a step back from the day to day exercises to think about the organizational and planning skills kids need to succeed and then teach strategies in a way that allows kids to learn, practice and reflect on these skills with increasing independence. The following are a few ideas and recommendations that elementary school administrators and teachers can consider to help build EF skills over time.
1) Host PD meetings that focus on EF skills
Let's face it, there's a lot of language out there. As a school, it's great to establish a baseline understanding and working definition of executive functions and how they relate to both neurotypical development as well as students with different learning disabilities.
2) Consider what you already do well
Begin by thinking about ways in which your school or classroom already supports the development of these skills. These include classroom environment and organization, playing games that develop working memory, supporting student organization. The work teachers already do is important to acknowledge while at the same time providing an opportunity to think about how we can improve.
3) Host conversations about EF between grade levels
Conversations between grade levels, or grouped between K-2 teachers and 3rd-5th grade teachers allow for exploration and expectation setting across grade levels.
4) Teach explicit EF strategies and integrate EF skills into content area teaching
EF skills, like SEL skills, need to be taught explicitly as well as integrated into content area teaching. Curriculum planning can include discussions of both. For a great resource, check out Lynn Meltzer's book, Promoting Executive Function Skills in the Classroom.
5) Practice longer-term assignments
For students in upper elementary, longer term assignments offer an opportunity to teach into strategies such as chunking information and setting shorter goals. A few times a year teachers can consider a longer term assignment where students can use a week calendar to plan a project, set a goal of what they would like to complete and by when, monitor their progress, and reflect on how they did.
6) Teach specific study strategies
Study skills help students practice EF skills such as organizing and preparing information and thinking about time management. Often, elementary schools begin vocabulary or spelling quizzes, which are a great opportunity to think about “teaching into” the idea of preparing for content area quizzes or tests. Technology tools such as Quizlet, as well as flashcards and index cards for Memory games are all good strategies that are helpful for all kids to learn and practice. Teachers can also help students make a plan for when and how they are going to study for a quiz -- an important exercise for all students to learn.
7) Provide time for student self-reflection and assessment
Reflection helps build understanding and strategies for improvement. Example questions to consider for individual students or class discussions include, what strategies helped you (your group) stay organized or prepare for a test? What did you find helpful? What did you find difficult? Having kids reflect on these skills allows them time to process what works for them and what they can do for the next time. A rubric can also be developed that helps students and teachers reflect on EF skills and use of strategies.
8) Create opportunities for parent engagement
Conferences are just one way parents and teachers can discuss organizational habits both at school and at home. Consider a homework assignment where a student might be asked to talk to a caregiver or parent about ways they stay organized and what helps them in their work or daily practice.
9) Host conversations to bolster school transition success
The transitions between preschool and elementary and elementary and middle school are often where students struggle most. Setting up opportunities for discussions between teachers of these grade levels can help us address this gap and determine how we can support students and help them succeed.
10) Offer regular and consistent organizational times
As a teacher, I know it can be easy to begin the year with the best intentions and attention to organization, but often as the year unfolds, other priorities take over our classroom time. Consider spending time teaching or sharing strategies to manage personal items or materials and offering regular, consistent times (daily, weekly, or biweekly) throughout the year to clean out and organize these spaces. Share what you are doing with parents so they can consider mirroring these same strategies at home. Parents are happy to support their children's organizational habits and it makes it especially helpful for both parents and teachers when they know they are working together and reinforcing each other.
There is a huge amount of ongoing research about EF skills and many resources out there for teachers. These are just a few thoughts about how elementary schools and especially upper grade teachers, can think about supporting these skills in their classroom and helping prepare students for the next phase of their formal school journey. Next week, I’ll talk more about how families can support these skills at home.
Websites and resources:
*Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function , Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University
Helping Kids Who Struggle With Executive Function , Child Mind Institute
What is Executive Function and How Does it Relate to Child Development , Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University
How Children and Adults Can Build Core Capabilities for Life , Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University
Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence , Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University. A great resource for developing and practicing EF skills across ages.
Promoting Executive Functions in the Classroom, Lynn Meltzer, 2010
All Learning is Social and Emotional, Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher, Dominique Smith, 2019, chapter 4.