Executive Functions: The How to Get Stuff Done Skills

My focus this school year is on executive functioning tools – how to integrate them in a semi-seamless way into my content; how to teach students how to find and use tools that help them; how to model using them in my own life and teaching. As I think and plan and create different tools and areas within my classroom to utilize this – I worry I may be doing too much. I try hard to give options for students while scaffolding choices in the beginning – then pulling the scaffolding away as needed through the year until students can choose pretty freely. While offering choices and options – I find that oftentimes areas become too cluttered or are visually overwhelming.

I’m going to share what I’ve done in the past and how I’m trying to improve this year.


Past: Multiple calendars in the room up – one that has current art events, one for each course with due dates, one for the school year, two that are fun with nothing inside of them, unit calendars for each course up, weekly agenda, daily agenda. I also didn’t do a great job of labelling or showing students what each calendar was specifically or how to utilize them in a successful way.

This year’s plan: One large calendar on an “executive function” board – this will have all the due dates for all the courses (I believe I’m only teaching 2 courses/5 classes, so this can be easily color coded with a key), this will also have vacations, etc on it. I will also put up the 2 syllabi which are basically yearlong overview of units and workshops. On the large front of the room board, there will be a daily agenda up and the unit calendar. I also have created a timeline for the year (which I stole from my colleague Liz Byron) that shows where we are in the year – both unit wise and progress report/report card time.  My thoughts in these seemingly tiny improvements are that having a macro view in one area will allow for students to see the big picture – which they often lose, but the big board has the daily/current unit view (micro) so they know what they need to “do now”.

(This is the timeline – the blue area on the top is for my Foundations of Art course, the bottom is for my AP Studio Art course. )

Goal Setting

Past: In the past, I’ve done a few different activities asking students to set goals or find out what they are hoping to learn and know at the end of the course. We’ve done it through writing letters; circles; value activities; and just basic writing on a post it what you want. I have done a pretty awful job at revisiting these goals so I basically have nothing to say about the revisiting….

This year’s plan: In their notebook, there will be a goal setting area/sheet. It will be something we talk about and work on at the beginning of the year AND THEN REVISIT and revise our goals and expectations of ourselves each 5 weeks. It will be something embedded in our weekly “do nows”  for a Feedback Friday. As we learn how to write goals and revise our goals – we will improve on that assessment of ourselves. I keep saying ourselves because my plan is to work on this as well with them.


Past: In the past, students have used sketchbooks to organize their handouts and ideations. There wasn’t a great way of doing it or organizing within their sketchbooks except chronologically and gluing items in.

This year’s plan: I am planning on having students have a 3-ring binder with sections. I know I know, it doesn’t sound very flexible, and it’s not completely flexible. I really want students to experience an organizational technique that is set up and then by the middle of the year, see how they would tweak it for themselves. The sections will be: Collaboration; Do Nows; Assignments/Projects [which would include the project overviews and feedback]; Process [which would include research and sketches];  Growth/Reworking [which would include the goal setting sheets and proposals for reworking/redoing an assignment] – these are the categories within their grades so it will also help them understand that at a better level as well.


Past: I’ve never done anything specific or as a whole group in regards to mindfulness. I have used breathing techniques, visualization and calming breaths with specific kids or in small groups depending on needs.

This year’s plan: I am going to incorporate a mindful moment within each class – just a small moment to take a deep breath and be still. I am thinking as a transition from the Do Now into the lesson or activity or making of the day. I am going to explicitly explain what I am doing and why I am doing it – the change in the brain, the need to calm down and how it helps me every day. I will probably utilize some of the Headspace videos to show and maybe even use the meditations from there some of the time.

Is it all too much?

Am I doing too much? Am I trying to stuff too much in? Maybe. AND. I think by being really transparent about what I’m trying to do and how I’m trying to do it with kids and with teachers – will only help all of us grow. I am new to some of this, new to it in this way and I am sure it will need some significant changes. I want students to be able to transfer as much of what they learn in my room into their lives – content and otherwise. And Alexis Reid (find her on twitter, trust me on this) said it best “Not supporting and scaffolding executive functions is like taking someone’s glasses away.” So although a lot of this sounds like a lot – I think much of it I’ve been doing but in a really vague, not streamlined way – and I certainly haven’t shared with students how to use it or make it their own, which isn’t fair. So not only is my goal to focus on executive functions – but to show students how to use and strengthen their own. 

4 thoughts on “Executive Functions: The How to Get Stuff Done Skills

  1. I am so proud of your initiatives here! May I also suggest taking a class-wide survey (with as many classes as you can) to see what learners already do to set goals, monitor progress, make plans, and organize their materials… as well as their thoughts? You can share that these are the ways you are going to be more mindful of EF skills in your classroom, but that others may have ideas, strategies, or approaches that work better for them… but that they should share what and how they “get stuff done”!

    As for mindfulness, integrating soft, calming music, a mindful minute to get settled, centered, and ready for class… or set an intention for yourself that models how Ls can do the same for themselves can shift the energies and direction of your classes! Small shifts can create great impact! I cannot wait to hear how things go this year… and am so proud of your efforts and intention!

    1. Yes! I am planning on doing a survey and adding those things are perfect! Thank you so much!

  2. I love this post! THANK YOU for writing it. Most of these goals are the same things I’ve been “marinading” on in my own head. After being in the classroom for ten years so far, it’s been difficult for me to coagulate these thoughts into something so elegant as yours right here. I started teaching High School, but have been teaching some advanced Middle School students. I’m hoping a greater focus on mindfulness will help them (and me) with some of the anxiety about ‘getting it right’ or understanding WHY we study and make Art. Your proposals for this year are fair, functional, and will likely make a difference in organization and mindfulness: exactly the areas where I want to evolve. I will be following you, Liz Byron, and Alexis Reid now – thank you for your references to them. -Stephanie Butler

    1. As I (and you), work with kids on these things I will share the process and progress! Getting it right is a thing all humans want… and.. teaching, practicing and modeling patience and the growth mindset consistently is the only way I know how to allow kids to flourish into that.

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