Increased homework demands. Multiple classes with varied grading systems and discrete homework policies. Intensified extracurricular commitments. These are just a few of the ways middle school tests students' ability to manage tasks, otherwise known as their executive function skills.
Many experts refer to executive functions as the command and control center of the brain, underlying the critically important role this "central office" plays in directing an otherwise chaotic environment. But research shows that the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for executive functions, does not fully develop until adulthood, leaving many middle schoolers, including both those with and without identified executive function delays, unable to supply the skills necessary for academic success.
So how can we help students develop executive function skills as they take on the added demands of middle school? This question relates to the larger issue of creating a comprehensive transition program for incoming middle school students, which is a position supported by AMLE. Under the rubric of comprehensive transition programs, AMLE supports the idea that "becoming comfortable in a school setting is an ongoing process, not a single event."
To that end, my colleagues and I developed a curriculum that helps rising fifth graders/ incoming sixth graders sharpen their toolbox of executive function (EF) skills. This curriculum model is rooted in a series of mini-lessons designed to help students build successful habits and routines for middle school. The curriculum begins with a self-assessment activity, where students reflect on their strengths and weaknesses in a number of different EF domains. Then the students move through a series of mini-lessons on the five topics outlined below:
1. Physical Organization
Whether it's one centralized binder, an accordion folder, or a set of color-coded notebooks, students need to adopt an organizational system for managing the constant flow of papers. In some cases, sixth grade teams may require a specific way they want students to organize materials. Other times, students are given a choice as per their organizational model. Either way, students benefit from some dedicated time and explicit instruction on initiating the organizing system.
Additionally, students may need some help initiating organization beyond the backpack. How are they planning to set up their locker? How will they organize computer files? Where will they store important passwords? What will their workspace at home look like? Students may benefit from utilizing Backward Design paradigm to sketch out their vision (for example, pin their perfect lockers on Pinterest) and then work backwards to figure out what tools and resources can help them realize those plans.
Finally, once students have selected all their systems, they then need a game plan for maintaining those structures over time. Often, students start the year with a pristine backpack and locker and by week six (or two!) those organizing systems have fallen by the wayside. To combat this, teach students to schedule regular "organizing sprints" to keep on top of their materials. Even 10 minutes a week can help. Some of us hosted a Friday lunch bunch to promote collaborative organizing. Students might benefit from following a simple, step-by-step organizational checklist so they know exactly how they should be spending their sprint time.
2. Homework Routine
In elementary school, students might have been able to get away with "no homework" days, but that kind of behavior just leads to poor work habits as students move along in their academic career. Instead, students should learn to work for a set amount of time each night, regardless of the amount of work actually assigned that day in school. Students benefit from mapping out their weekly schedule on a calendar, taking extracurricular commitments and work preferences into account (i.e., Do they function better doing homework at home or staying after school for tutorials? Do they want to get started right away after school or do they need a movement/snack break first?)
And what about students who fall back on the "but I have no homework tonight" mantra? Students can learn to supplement light homework nights with opportunities to organize materials, review class notes, plan long-term assignments, and complete other non-assigned but critically important tasks. Many students fallaciously believe that homework is work you are actually assigned by the teacher, when in fact homework can be anything that helps students feel more prepared, less anxious, and more effective in their ability to take on school assignments. Once students have redefined their notion of homework, they can work to visually post a menu of ways to spend their "extra time" efficiently.
3. Getting "Unstuck"
Many students who struggle with executive function simply don't have the problem-solving skills needed to persevere through a challenging assignment, whether it be a difficult writing prompt or advanced math problem. Instead of simply giving up and asking mom/dad/teacher for the right answer, students need to develop a personal checklist of ways they can attempt the problem themselves. Did they look for examples in their class notes? Are there websites that could act as a resource? What about taking a break and coming back to the task later with a fresh set of eyes?
4. Managing Long-Term Assignments
Many elementary school students either haven't had a ton of practice completing long-term assignments or they haven't had to do the bulk of the managing piece independently. Middle school students, however, might be expected to toggle a slew of projects, essays, lab reports, and reading tasks simultaneously. This is a great opportunity for rising middle school students to learn how to break work into smaller chunks and use weekly and monthly calendars to hold themselves accountable for self-imposed mini-deadlines.
Students need to practice self-advocating with teachers and parents to build confidence in this arena. Help students by creating self-advocacy models, such as a list of sentence starters or sample email templates, and by rehearsing face-to-face conversations with students. Students can create a reference document listing the email addresses and websites of their sixth grade teachers, as well as administration and support staff they may need to contact. After providing explicit models and instruction in this area, have students apply their learning by introducing themselves (via a variety of modalities) to their sixth grade teachers, principal, guidance counselor, etc.
By taking the time to teach a series of mini-lessons on these topics, teachers can ready their students to meet the added executive function demands of middle school. In addition, this type of comprehensive transition program can lay the foundation for students building effective work habits and routines for the remainder of their academic career.
Rachel Marcus is a curriculum specialist at Engaging Minds, Inc. an executive function coaching company based in Newton, MA.
Published February 2020.