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  • Writer's pictureAaron Daffern

Take CHARGE Day 15: Executive skills

Updated: Jan 27, 2020

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

(To read Day 14, click here. To listen to this post as a podcast, click here.)

Take CHARGE of the Classroom







Misbehavior can be seen in any number of lights. Some teachers view misbehavior as an indication of a character defect. Students are "bad" and their character reflects that. The only way to deal with bad kids, then, is strict authority and punishment. Others take maladaptive behavior personally, seeing conspiracies and cabals of disgruntled miscreants everywhere.

While these are extreme examples, all teachers have a default reason that they assign to misbehavior. Without really thinking too hard about it, they assign a narrative to explain why students act the way they do. The story they tell themselves directs their actions towards solving or eliminating student misbehavior. Rather than viewing it negatively and spending an inordinate amount of time trying to control the uncontrollable, a better option would be to view discipline problems as simply an indication of missing and/or underdeveloped executive skills.

Students misbehave because they don't know how to act more appropriately. Our job then, as educators, is to provide them with instruction in those needed areas. We provide the higher-order thinking support for those students still working to develop theirs. Teachers lending their prefrontal lobes and structuring the environment to actively support emerging skills help ensure that children will experience social, emotional, and academic success.

What's your focus?

One thing that students don't often think about is what they think about. What are they focusing on? Are they directing their thoughts toward helpful or hurtful thoughts? Are negative emotions crowding out any chance for peace and serenity?

One way to teach kids to think about their focus is to have them look out a classroom window. On the window they can see streaks of dirt, fingerprints, hard water residue, and perhaps some Scotch tape. All of those things are a part of their view through the window. They can choose, if they want, to spend a large portion of their mental energy fixating on the dirt and grime on the glass. They are also free, however, to look past that and focus on the beautiful view outside the window. By taking a deeper view, the blotches on the glass don't disappear. Instead, they fade by comparison.

For younger students, teaching by analogy is a powerful way to make the invisible visible. Have them go through the exercise of focusing on objects on the glass and then shifting their focus to the scenery beyond it. In the same way, they can choose where to focus their mind's eye. They can let negativity and hurtful thoughts (dirt on the glass) dominate their view or they can take a look optimistically at the bigger picture beyond the moment.


For older students, or those teachers that simply don't have access to a dirty window in the classroom, another analogy that can be used to focus is a wheel. The hub of the wheel is who we are, our core being. Scattered across the rim are the various thoughts, events, and emotions that we experience moment to moment. When students get stuck on the rim, they can take a moment to center themselves back on the hub.

The wheel of awareness, also called mindsight by Dr. Dan Siegel, teaches kids that they have choices about what they focus on and where they place their attention. It gives them a tool that lets them integrate the different parts of themselves, so they aren't held hostage by one negative constellation of feelings or thoughts clamoring for their attention.

Here's an activity to help students exercise their mindsight, to get back to their hub. Have them sit in their chairs and keep their heads still looking around the room. Ask them to notice and name 10 or 15 things by just moving their eyes. They choose what to focus on. That's how their brain works.

Have them close their eyes. What do they hear? Ask them to notice their breathing. They can choose what to focus on. That's the power of mindsight. If they find themselves getting anxious, they can close their eyes and focus on their breathing (Day 13). Through practice, students can develop mental discipline to get off the rim and back to the core of who they are.

Sensations, images, feelings, thoughts (SIFT)

Another powerful learning opportunity for students is separating the various items cluttering their mental space. Rather than simply accepting their thoughts as their own, not challenging them or attempting to manipulate them, students can be taught to pay attention to what's going on inside them by learning to SIFT (Sensations, Images, Feelings, Thoughts).

Have students sit quietly and close their eyes. Ask them to breath deeply and regularly as they work through what's going on inside them. First, have students pay attention to the different sensations moving through them. Recognizing different sensations like hunger, tiredness, excitement, and grumpiness can give children a great deal of understanding and influence over their feelings. Also, they can sift for images affecting the way they look at and interact with the world. While this is more common after students watch a scary movie or witness a violent act, images can stick with them for a long time, affecting how they act and process events. These images could be memories or even fabrications.

Next, ask students to name how they are feeling at the moment. We want our kids to recognize a full spectrum of emotions, that there's a colorful rainbow of rich feelings within them. More than vanilla labels such as happy, sad, or bored, we need to provide students with nuanced vocabulary to describe their emotions. Finally, thoughts are more left-brained. How do they narrate their lives? What do they tell themselves? Just like teachers create narratives to explain student misbehaviors, students themselves create stories that dominate their thoughts, explaining why things happen the way they do. The question is, Are students aware of these thoughts?

By teaching them to SIFT through the activity of their minds, teachers can help students recognize the different rim points at work within them, and help them gain more insight and control in their lives. Going back to mindsight in the previous section, sifting is another tool that students can use to step outside themselves for a moment to consider their inner life. From that vantage point, they can decide whether the focus of their attention is worthy of it and then, if desired, move back to the hub of who they are.

De-structured time

Up to this point, the strategies shared have been explicit teaching pieces that teachers can use to help develop the executive skills of students. If they want to give students the opportunity to use those skills, to flex their newly acquired abilities, they're going to have to do something different. If teachers have every moment planned from bell to bell, every activity organized, and every interaction related to a state standard, students are never asked to use their decision-making muscles. Instead, they're asked to simply comply.

Teachers have to de-structure some of their instructional time. The more time kids spend in structured activities, the less able they are to use executive function. Giving kids a bit more latitude for free time and social interactions may be better for their happiness and empathy quotients as well as their academic performance. For elementary teachers, most have this time built in with recess every day. A lot of schools now have breakfast in the classroom. Is that time structured and instructional or free?

For schools across the country, lunch time is a daily struggle. Why try to control the uncontrollable? Instead of seating charts and noise levels, let the students talk. De-structure the lunch room. Allow for open seating in elementary lunch rooms. Let them decide where to sit. If students are always told what to do, where to go, where to sit, and how to talk, they are being robbed of daily opportunities to practice decision making.

De-structured does not mean anarchy. There are expectations in these open time periods. Students will test the boundaries of these limits, and that's to be expected. Rather than taking away the privileges of an entire class or grade level because of the poor choices of a few, single out the few. Let them feel the consequences of their misbehavior without snatching away the privileges of the vast majority. Whether it be in the classroom, on the playground, or in the cafeteria, a little bit of de-structured time will go a long way.

Next steps

Action: Choose one of the teaching actions described above. Whether it is looking through a window, using mindsight to view the rim and the hub, or sifting through thoughts, plan on introducing one of these to students next week.

Reflection questions: How structured is your classroom environment? When and how often do students have the opportunity to make real and meaningful decisions? How can you let go of some of your control to give students the chance to practice using their executive skills?


Borba, M. (2016). UnSelfie: Why empathetic kids succeed in our all-about-me world. Simon and Schuster.

Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2016). No-drama discipline: the whole-brain way to calm the chaos and nurture your child's developing mind. New York: Bantam Books.

Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2016). The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your childs developing mind. Vancouver, B.C.: Langara College.

To read Day 16, click here.

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