• Aaron 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)