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Executive Functioning: Not just a trendy catch phrase

Squad Goals. Binge-watch. Tweetstorm. Adulting. Lit. Recent years have created buzzwords that infiltrate our dialog from interactions on social media to conversations at the dinner table. One phrase hasn’t quite made it to hashtag status, but its use has become trendy in educational circles: Executive Functioning. If your child has learning differences, you've heard a teacher, psychologist, or other educator use it often...but what is it?

Simply put, executive functioning skills enable a person to complete a task. offers a comprehensive definition: Executive functioning is comprised of three skills that allow people to “manage their thoughts, actions, and emotions to get things done.” Those skills are working memory (short-term memory), cognitive flexibility (thinking about things in more than one way), and inhibitory control (self-control regarding distractions and temptations). These skills allow one to pay attention, organize and plan, initiate and stay focused on tasks, regulate emotions, and self-monitor. Noble Academy recognizes executive functioning as an integral piece of the puzzle with our students. One of the five tenets of The Noble Academy Way is Preparation and Readiness. This step, important not only in the academic setting but also in transition to post-secondary life, includes a focus on executive functioning. From Noble Academy’s website:

Executive functioning skills include a number of mental processes that make learning more effective and allow students to internalize and practice what they learn. We work to develop these skills in our students with direct instruction as well as hands-on activities. These include: problem solving. reasoning, flexible thinking, and planning and execution.

One unique aspect of a Noble Academy education is how attention to these skills permeates the culture and curriculum.

Lower School teacher, Kay McMurphy, is intentional about integrating executive functioning skills. She numbers homework assignments expecting that students will use numbering as a planning tool for the order to complete home assignments. She also encourages “thinking aloud” and models self-talk. Students will hear her say, “Okay, it's time to talk to your brain and say, this is new....I need to stay focused and on-task because this is NEW." She encourages her students to prepare and plan and to use positive self-talk to walk themselves through math problems. Like many other Noble faculty, she shows the class agenda on the board so students can see the daily goals. This consistent modeling and providing students with the tools and space for habit-forming planning fosters growth in executive functioning.

One highly-anticipated event for Noble Academy students is the junior high skills week trip. Every other fall, seventh and eighth graders can participate in an overnight trip, usually to the North Carolina coast. While overnight field trips are common for middle grades, this experience stands out. From beginning to end, students are responsible for much of the trip preparation, planning, and management. Junior high teacher, Erin Cawley explains, “We use a multi-sensory approach to preparing for our trip. We give students written behavior expectations, as well as the events itinerary; and we combine that with role-play so students can better visualize our movements on the trip. We encourage flexible thinking by taking normal objects and activities and turning them into engaging team building exercises. For example, we took a kickball and created a life-size foosball game. We used paper plates and a balloon for a tennis match. Another activity included taking the idea of charades and twisting it--making the entire team responsible for working together to act out and solve the clue.”

Organized planning is also a big part of the experience. Students brainstorm packing lists and itineraries, and budget for meals and shopping. They meet with roommates to plan who brings what and schedule shower times. On the trip, students meet nightly with supervising teachers to discuss the next day's plan, the time to set an alarm, and clothes to set out. It's a tangible lesson in executive functioning that translates to real-life experiences.

At Noble Academy, “executive functioning” is not just a buzz-phrase. Development of these skills happens daily in every classroom. Faculty and staff recognize the importance of these skills, not only within an educational setting but also as we help prepare students to be successful community members.

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