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Exploring Executive Function Skills Through a Professional Reading Circle

By Esther Yamada
Exploring Executive Function Skills Through a Professional Reading Circle

Many of us have been involved in book clubs, ordering our books every month and gathering in homes, libraries, or community centers to talk about literature. At Aoba International School, the support coordinator organized a year-long professional learning circle, focused on executive function skills. The book selected was Executive Function Skills in the Classroom[1]. Group members volunteered to lead a chapter session by giving an overview and report on a trial application in the classroom.

In the book, the authors acknowledged that teachers are paying daily attention to a multitude of actions and managing distractions. They encouraged teachers to focus on student behavior to facilitate a more attentive response and foster a closer relationship. They also believe that students may feel exposed or defensive if they are observed without warning. They advised that by making our observation visible to students, we can make it clear that we like our student’s ingenuity and individuality, and that “dedicated attention is part of a loving and appreciative relationship which is essential to both school success and children’s ability to thrive[2].” As I read this, I remembered a favored Principal’s words, “relationships, relationships, relationships.”

It was humbling to read that research reveals that teachers tend to respond to stress by boosting structure, reducing expectations, and increasing control. As a seasoned teacher, I know I’ve been guilty of that. It’s an understandable reaction, but not one that encourages executive function skill growth in our young students. The 11 executive function skills are: response inhibition, sustained attention, planning and prioritizing, metacognition, time management, goal-directed persistence, emotional control, flexibility, task initiation, organization, and working memory.

Working from this viewpoint, I was reminded of the sentiments of Dr. Ross Greene,[3] “The behaviour is the least important part, the expectation that the child is finding it hard to meet is the most important part” and “Children do well when they can.” Greene argues that bad behavior isn't about laziness, control issues, manipulation, or attention, but rather a sign of lagging skills and difficulty meeting expectations. So, it follows that if we study our student’s behavior and know which skills are lagging among our students, we can help them succeed.

The chapter I worked from to create a trial application was "Classroom Observation." The reading suggested that we conference with kids before an activity to discuss the likely obstacles and what strategies can be used to reduce these obstacles. I tried this with my challenging Grade 2 class before a group task. I knew there would be struggles with the healthy sharing of ideas and persistence. Before I revealed my checklist, the students knew exactly what was required: ask each other questions, compromise, and try our best. Using the student’s checklist, I could easily see who could do those three things and who was trying a little harder than usual. Given this new data, next time, I could group students differently and give some students a few personal reminders beforehand. I could help increase their skills in flexibility and goal-directed persistence.

Armed with my newfound, sharper observation, I wanted to offer help to a young teacher in Grade 1 who had a very difficult student. I visited her class once a month to ask questions of the teacher and assistant teacher, and to observe the child himself. I knew the child’s family and a little about him; bi-cultural (English proficient/Japanese passive), trauma background, highly intelligent, and suspected ADHD. When I first visited, the teacher had been using a timer first thing in the morning to help him settle. One morning, the child chose the maximum time of 10 minutes, worked for two minutes (1:1 with a counseling intern), and then lay down on the ground. Our school counselor walked by and took him for a “brain break.” Upon return, she reminded him to show her what they promised (to rejoin the class and participate positively). The child, while sliding across the floor on his back into the class, asked the counselor “Why do you want to see it so bad?”

During the second visit, the students were finishing a math test. The child had refused to do it and was drawing. When he caught my eye, he asked me why I was there. I told him I wanted to ask him some questions, but if he preferred, we could do his math test. He chose the test, and we took turns reading the questions, completing most of it in just thirty minutes. While working, he told me his brother isn’t very good to him. I shared my own relationship with my brother and told him that we are close now. When I had to leave, he asked, “Wait, are you coming back sometime?” I am reminded that dedicated attention is part of a loving and appreciative relationship, which is essential to both school success and children’s ability to thrive.

On the third visit, the class was working on a literacy activity. The child was hiding in the quiet corner. We talked generally and I suggested that we fix the quiet corner canopy. I asked him if he knew how to tie strings and, using his jacket sleeves, he showed me that he could. We walked to the office to get some string and I spoke in Japanese to the staff. He told me that he was a “weird kid” because he could understand but not speak Japanese. I asked if he was shy, and he said no. After fixing the canopy, all the while chatting about Pokemon, his family, and the commute to school, we started the literacy task on the carpet. He understood the task easily and was happy to make silly sentences with me, laughing and writing well, completing half of the work. "Dedicated attention is part of a loving and appreciative relationship" (Faith, Bush, and Dawson 2022). But how is 1:1 attention and support possible in a busy classroom setting?

When it was time to present my chapter review to my professional reading group, I shared with them what I have shared here. I asked them to consider the case of our Grade 1 student and analyze his executive function skills. What can this child do? What is he struggling with? How can we build his skills? With his teacher present, we confirmed that he struggled with 10 of the e11 skills. He showed skill only in working memory, not enough to see him through even an hour of being in Grade 1. We suggested ways the teacher could start building his skills and suggested that they start with emotional control.

Thanks to joining the professional reading circle, I now regularly think about my own executive function skills and those of my students. I dedicate time to asking students about obstacles and discussing good strategies to overcome them. I use similar language when asking students to self-monitor and I aim to continue reaching out to younger teachers to offer help. “Relationships, relationships, relationships.”



1. Faith, Bush, and Dawson 2022, "Executive Function Skills in the Classroom", Guildford Press.
2. Faith, Bush, and Dawson 2022, "Executive Function Skills in the Classroom", Guildford Press, pg. 65.
3. American psychologist, author, and founding director of Lives in the Balance.

Esther Yamada teaches at Aoba International School in Tokyo, Japan.


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