Executive Functioning is central to student success. This is why Natalie Diehl, Director of Student Services and Head of the Jayne S. Carmody School, developed the comprehensive Executive Functioning program at RCDS and works closely with faculty and students in implementing a trajectory of skills that graduates use for a lifetime. She unpacks the program in a conversation about the cognitive processes that impact our children’s daily lives.
What is Executive Functioning and why is it so fundamental to academic success?
Executive Functioning is a comprehensive set of skills that are the control center of our brain. The skill set is so fundamental to student success because it encompasses capabilities like planning, organization, time management, flexibility, and perseverance. These skills are all connected. They are never developed in isolation. Executive Functioning has to be practiced and reinforced over time. That’s why we intentionally teach it from Nursery to Grade 8 at RCDS.
What does Executive Functioning look like in RCDS classrooms?
For our youngest ones in Nursery and PreK, it’s about emotional control and helping children develop social relationships and an understanding of how to be better teammates before the academic years get underway. When they begin Lower School, children are still becoming self-aware so they’re still working on things like raising your hand and waiting your turn to speak. At the same time, they are following multi-step directions and using working memory, so they also beginning to develop Executive Functioning skills as it relates to academic work.
Fourth graders are introduced to the RCDS Planner and our One Binder System. Both are tools that help children organize their work and plan assignments in a very simplified manner. It’s also great preparation for Upper School where students consistently practice Executive Functioning. That’s when Conference Periods begin so they have a block of time to work on long-term assignments, seek out help from teachers and manage their time. All our sixth graders take the yearlong Executive Functioning course. One of my favorite outcomes of that class is seeing how the students apply strategies in the course to their own learning styles.
Executive Functioning kicked off the Coffee Talk series with RCDS parents this year. Why did you and Lea Prendergast, Head of Lower School, choose this topic?
Yes, we brought back Coffee Talks with the theme, “New Year, New Knowledge,” The first session was for Lower School parents in September. We presented on Executive Functioning because it is such an important part of the curriculum and woven into everything we do. We covered it again with our Upper School families at the Coffee Talk in October. The idea is to take our light out from under the bushel if you will, to educate parents on the wonderful things happening in RCDS classrooms.
The feedback we received from parents was great because the session let them know what was going on at school. It also covered tangible things that they could do at home to support their children.
What are some practical tips for families to do at home to develop and reinforce Executive Functioning?
Age-appropriate chores are a very effective way to build Executive Functioning skills. For elementary age students that can involve multi-step tasks like setting the table, helping with yard work, or sorting the laundry. Parents can also support their children by having a designated homework spot that has all their school materials and be free of distractions. By the same token, having a “calm down corner,” can help reinforce self-regulation when children are frustrated, or circumstances become difficult.
Another tip we discussed is to hold a Sunday night meeting where the family sits down with their planners and calendars and they write out what's coming up for the week, whether it's extracurricular activities, a social engagement, or a doctor's appointment. That’s a great way to practice and reinforce time management.
Some schools have placed a greater emphasis on computer technology for note taking, tests and general organization. “Writing things down,” is still actively practiced at RCDS. How come?
There is so much research and science behind the benefits of physically writing things down. Your brain absorbs a great deal more information when you write things down. That’s why we have students hand write assignments and write in their RCDS Planners. You're organizing assignments, checking things off a tangible list. You can include details and map out what you need to do. It's a tool that when used correctly, works. That’s why a number of our graduates request the planners when the go on to high school and college. I just heard from an alumna who wants to bulk order a set of RCDS Planners for all the girls on her dormitory floor.
Of course, we have Google Classroom and Chromebooks because we do know how important it is for children to use technology. But we balance it because it’s also important to be able to handwrite a rough draft of an essay to get your thoughts together. Or take notes while listening to a teacher, an incredibly complex skill RCDS students become quite good at because they are doing it by hand. Our Upper School students even learn how to annotate passages in books and literature. Again, it’s because more information gets internalized into the brain when you write things down.
What’s the ultimate goal of intentionally teaching Executive Functioning at a N-8 school?
Intentionally teaching executive functioning skills to young children through middle school sets the stage for a lifetime of success in academics, career, and personal life. It provides them with the tools they need to navigate the complexities of the world around them and become independent, confident, and capable individuals.
And what is your advice to parents on how to help their children become independent, confident, and capable individuals?
Let your children make mistakes. Recovering from a mistake is how kids learn. As parents, you don’t need to hover, and you don’t need to correct everything. It’s actually better for children to reflect on why a mistake happened and for the parent not to try and fix the mistake in that moment. Executive functioning skills are not fully developed until around age 25! So, mistakes are going to happen, and some bad decisions will be made, it's important to note that while allowing children to make mistakes is crucial, it's equally important to provide them with a safe and supportive environment. This means offering guidance, encouragement, and reassurance, while also setting appropriate boundaries and ensuring their safety. Allowing kids to make mistakes is an important aspect of their development and growth.
Natalie Diehl is the Director of Student Services and Head of The Jayne S. Carmody School at RCDS. A member of the RCDS faculty for 15 years, she holds a B.A. in Education/Teaching of Individuals in Elementary Special Education Programs and Psychology from Saint Elizabeth University, and a M.Ed in Learning Disabilities from Monmouth University.
- A Word from Our Experts