Strategy Instruction – A teaching practice for embedding executive function skills in the classroom

Strategy Instruction – A teaching practice for embedding executive function skills in the classroom

Note-taking, planning a long-term project, remembering instructions, completing homework and revising for exams are essential daily tasks for our young learners but why are some students able to manage these demands whilst others really struggle?

Well, these are also classic examples of tasks that require the use of our executive functions (an essential set of brain processes that sit within the prefrontal cortex of the brain). It is very likely that students who find these tasks challenging are struggling with their executive function skills.

Strategy instruction is a teaching practice that can support students with executive function challenges such as time management and organisation whilst encouraging independent learning and promoting flexible thinking. This approach has proven to be effective in the classroom by providing students with clear strategies to help them process, remember, and express the information they have learnt (LEARNing Landscapes, 2011).

Based on the Principles of Effective Strategy Instruction (Meltzer, Pollica & Barzillah, 2007)1, we outline three of the key principles to consider when embedding strategy instruction into daily teaching practices so that you can equip your students with the study skills they need to flourish.

What are executive functions?

Executive functions is an umbrella term for the brain process that enables us to plan and execute tasks, manage our behaviour and control our emotions (Diamond, 2013)2. We have three core executive functions (inhibitory control, response inhibition and working memory) which work together in different ways resulting in 11 executive function skills. 

We know from research that our executive function skills are foundational for emotional and social development as well as academic and personal outcomes (e.g. mental health, wellbeing, happiness, relationships) throughout life (Diamond, 2013)2.

What do executive function challenges look like in the classroom?

Students with executive function challenges often understand complex concepts but struggle to show what they know. These processes directly make it possible for students to sit still, pay attention, remember and follow rules, and flexibly adopt new perspectives.

Challenges with executive functions in the classroom often include:

  • Misremembering instructions or losing track of what they are doing (working memory)
  • Underestimating the time needed to complete a task (time-management)
  • Difficulty following through with a task to the end (goal-directed persistence) 
  • Difficulty keeping school materials organised (organisation, planning)
  • Sudden outbursts (emotional control, response inhibition)
  • Difficulty changing tasks or tolerating change (cognitive flexibility)
  • Challenges getting started on tasks (task initiation)  

One of the most effective ways of addressing these challenges is through strategy instruction which supports students in becoming metacognitive learners (i.e. teaching them how to learn) (Meltzer, Pollica & Barzillai, 2007)1.

What are the key principles for embedding strategy instruction in the classroom? 

Executive function strategies should be directly linked to the curriculum 

Research indicates that linking executive function strategies to school-based subjects is more effective than when these skills are taught in isolation or are unrelated to classroom work (Metzler & Basho, 2010). To ensure that students understand what, when, and how to use appropriate strategies, each teacher needs to create a classroom environment that is goal-oriented, fosters metacognition, and provides daily opportunities for students to use strategies to maximise their potential.

Strategies should be taught in a structured, systematic way

In order for these strategies to become internalised, incorporate frequent teacher modeling of the strategies, ask for feedback, and provide opportunities for repeated practice. It is important to note that what works for one student might not work for another – there is no “one size fits all” strategy. Students should be encouraged to recognise what works best for them, so that the strategies can be adapted accordingly. This is a key part of the process that enables students to understand their strengths, challenges and learning profiles as well as empower students to take control of their learning. 

Create a “Strategy of the Week Board,” which enables students to share their favourite strategy with the rest of the class. This also creates a springboard for a discussion of the strategies and serves as a visual reminder for those who might forget! 

Metacognitive strategies should be explicitly taught 

Whilst some students are able to use their executive function skills independently, many others, especially those who are neurodiverse, need to be taught these processes explicitly. To maximise the effectiveness of these strategies, explicit instruction should be provided about how, when, where and why to use them.

Meltzer, Pollica and Barzillah (2007)1 also recommend developing a culture of strategy-use across the school to ensure that students are actively applying the strategies they have learnt on a daily basis. In addition to creating the opportunity for students to learn strategies from one another, when there is a whole school emphasis on learning strategies, it can help students build their resilience, it promotes academic success and creates a sense of community and togetherness. 

Interested in working with Connections in Mind? 

Connections in Mind work with schools to deliver interventions in the classroom that can support students with their executive function skill development and metacognition. We work closely with educational and clinical staff in schools so that they can equip their students with the study skills they need to flourish. 

We know that every school can present its own challenges so we offer bespoke whole school interventions right down to 1:1 or small group interventions. If you are interested in finding out more about what we can offer then please email info@connectionsinmind.co.uk

1Principles of Effective Strategy Instruction (Meltzer, Pollica & Barzillah, 2007)
2Diamond, 2013

By Becky Tyler, Connections in Mind

Lily Hewitt-Jones
Lily Hewitt-Jones