Authored by Dawn Summerfield, Educational Consultant, NWEA
One of the greatest lessons we have learned over the past 7 months is how important organization, time management and self-regulation is, not only for ourselves as teachers but for our students as well. There is no question that we were thrown very quickly into the deep end last spring when the world went into lock down. Undoubtedly, some of us handled the tremendous shift in teaching and learning with grace and what looked to be a minimum of disruption, while others were struggling to meet deadlines, plan lessons appropriate to online learning and communicate effectively with students, parents and colleagues. So how did they do it? What did they know that the rest of us didn’t? Perhaps those students and teachers who managed the move to online teaching and learning with what looked like a minimum of disruption, were able to access their executive functioning skills and maximize the benefits of being organized and self-regulated.
Executive functioning covers several skills including organizing, prioritizing, task initiation, self-regulation, working memory and planning. While all of these are important, this article focuses on the importance of time management, self-regulation and the effects that stress can have on executive functioning.
Time management is one of the key EF skills that, when developed, facilitate strong academic performance. In his book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey uses a quadrant matrix to demonstrate how all tasks can be categorized as a degree of urgent and important (see figure 1). People with poor time management and an inability to properly prioritize will often find that most of their time is spent in the Urgent/Important quadrant. It is in this quadrant that things become extremely stressful. As we know when the brain is operating from a stress induced fight or flight reaction, learning is not optimized. Therefore, taking the time to teach students how to manage their time, giving them a number of strategies to choose from that will help them avoid the stressful trappings of quadrant 1 where things are both urgent and important, will benefit them in the long run.
Poor executive functioning can cause stress, and as we know stress can be extremely harmful and debilitating if it goes unchecked. Research around high achieving students in accelerated programmes such as honours classes, AP classes or IB courses, found that students in these types of programmes suffer a significant degree of stress (Suldo, O’Brien Storey & Shaunessy-Dedrick, 2018). The researchers found that focusing on time and task management would have the most impact on reducing student stress and enhancing the students’ opportunity for success. Creating a systemic approach to support students in managing their stress is a worthy undertaking and should include a focus on improving study habits and developing time and task management, as well as attention to self-regulation so that students can learn and practice appropriate responses to various situations.
Self-regulation is an important part of executive functioning. Strategies used to improve self-regulation, such as goal setting, using the evidence of learning to make informed next decisions, and reflection are not innate skills that are brought to the classroom and need to be explicitly taught to students as they navigate through the school experience (Egan, 2017). Strong self-regulation helps people make choices about their own behaviour. It allows them to think before acting. As well, self-regulation helps us to better plan analyze, and respond appropriately to difficult situations (Cortes, Munoz & Robres 2019). Poorly developed self-regulation skills add to the stress that occurs when people are disorganized and have poor time management. It is important that we teach these skills because it allows students to manage their emotions, monitor their reactions to difficult situations and focus on what is important at the time. However, this is a skill that is developed over time, and should be embedded into our teaching practice.
Benefits for Teachers and Students
Teachers, like students might benefit from improving their executive functioning. Let’s face it nobody wants to be disorganized, always feeling like they are behind in their work or never having enough time to get stuff done. It doesn’t have to be that way, and improving EF skills can help. If we want our students to improve their executive functioning, we have to share strategies with them, and then hold them accountable to using those strategies. As teachers, we need to self-reflect and determine if we, too could use some improvement in our EF skills. Strategies must be shared with teachers so they too can improve their productivity. Improving a teachers’ time and task management will improve their job performance and increase their job satisfaction, which is an important step in creating a positive work experience. Here is a list of some of the benefits for both teachers and students.
Strong EF Skills Benefits for Teachers
Strong EF Skills: Benefits for Students
The Academic Connection
The research is very clear that strong executive functioning skills lead to strong academic performance (Willoughby, Wylie & Little, 2019), and that strong EF skills are particularly useful in a learning environment where students are constantly expected to pay attention, follow rules and concentrate (Ahmed, 2019). In fact, there has been research showing executive functioning as a predictor of academic performance (Samuels, Ellery; Tournaki, Blackman,& Zilinski, 2016). We also know that when stress is not properly managed, there is a negative impact on executive functioning. Stress can impair the working memory, cognitive flexibility and self-regulation (Shields, Sazma & Yonelinas, 2016), which negatively impacts the ability to be productive and stay organised. When this happens, people are not receptive to learning. Students get angry, disconnect and become bored. Teachers become disengaged and become frustrated.
It makes sense that when executive functioning is developed and working well, people are able to live up to expectations, problem solve, exhibit cognitive flexibility, and learn. However, when their executive function skills are under-developed, failure to understand or respond and grow as expected is likely to occur. This failure can induce a stress response which causes people to act from a place of fight or flight because the inability to meet the expectation of someone you want to please increases stress and creates a toxic cycle of underachieving (December, 2019). Learning how to positively employ time management and task management is key for students if they are going to maintain an overall wellness, reach their academic potential, and be happy, healthy students. Teaching students the benefit of strong executive functioning skills will prepare them for the high demands and multiple tasks they will be faced with during their academic career. Taking a pro-active and inclusive approach is crucial to arming students and teachers with the tools they need to succeed.
There is ample evidence that executive function is connected to academic performance, and that stress has an effect on executive function. Finding a way to help both teachers and students improve their EF skilss is an excellent way to improve the wellbeing of your school community and consequently improve teaching and learning. We are living in a time where everything is uncertain and different. Now, more than ever, teachers and students need the tools that will help them take back some of the control they have lost due to the pandemic. Improving the executive functioning skills of your school community can provide you with those tools, help your school community take the positive steps forward and build a stronger, healthier school.
Ahmed, S. F. (2019). Measuring executive function during early childhood: The utility of direct assessments, teacher ratings, and group-based tasks (Order No. 27614385). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (2352654767). Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/2352654767?accountid=200797
Covey, Stephen R. (2004) The 7 habits of highly effective people :restoring the character ethic New York : Free Press,
Egan, P. A. (2017). The relationship between student self-regulation strategies and increased student achievement: A study on how the explicit integration of self-regulation strategies impacts student reading achievement in the elementary classroom (Order No. 10605942). Available from Education Database; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1930638693). Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/1930638693?accountid=200797
Shields, G., Sazma, M., and Yonelinas, A. 2016. The Effects of Acute Stress on Core Executive Functions: A Meta-Analysis and Comparison with Cortisol Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2016 Sep; 68: 651–668. Published online 2016 Jun 28. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2016.06.038
Samuels, William Ellery; Tournaki, Nelly; Blackman, Sheldon; Zilinski, Christopher.The Journal of Educational Research; Bloomington Vol. 109, Iss. 5, (2016): 478.
Suldo, S. M. ., O’Brennan, L., Storey, E. D. ., & Shaunessy-Dedrick, E. (2018). Supporting High School Students in Accelerated Courses. (cover story). Communique (0164775X), 46(6), 1–21. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=sso&db=eue&AN=128582956&site=eds-live&scope=site
Willoughby, M. T., Wylie, A. C., & Little, M. H. (2019). Testing longitudinal associations between executive function and academic achievement. Developmental Psychology, 55(4), 767–779. https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0000664
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