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Mastering Executive Functioning: A Journey Through the Grades to Successful Learning

By Heather Schmid

A notable educational term is at the forefront of unlocking successful learning, executive functioning. This hot topic in education impacts every classroom and every academic subject. Executive Functioning (EF) is possibly the most important determining factor for a student's predicted success. In a nutshell, EF is the ability to regulate one’s own behavior and independently initiate action. Let’s take a journey through the grades to see firsthand what executive functioning looks like at every stage with a few examples.

  • Sits quietly on the classroom carpet listening to the lesson
  • Keeps their hands to themself while standing in line
  • Follows 3 step directions, for example: put your materials in your desk, put your coloring sheet in the basket, and bring your reading bag to the carpet

First Grade
  • Raises their hand to speak instead of blurting out
  • Locates items in their desk independently
  • Puts on their jacket and ties shoes independently
  • Notices and replaces dull pencils in the can and takes a sharpened pencil, without being asked

Second Grade
  • Resists touching others’ desk materials
  • Easily lines up, not needing to be first in the line
  • Erases their errors on paper thoroughly without tearing the paper

Third Grade
  • Works silently without talking to self or to classmates when directed
  • Pushes their desk chair in when leaving and keeps toolbox closed
  • Keeps track of their sweatshirt at school… rarely needing to look in the Lost and Found

Fourth Grade
  • Consistently brings home the correct materials for homework and returns it completed the next day with thought and care - takes pride in their work
  • Independently empties and tidies their backpack at home; makes own bed and cleans their own room
  • Reframes from unkind remarks towards others, understanding that others have feelings that equally matter
Fifth Grade
  • Independently gets ready for school in the morning and cares about being on time
  • Understands the difference between completing homework and studying for tests
  • Thinks of others by holding a door open when someone is behind them, offers help when a classmate is struggling and takes responsibility for actions when an error of judgment is made

Sixth Grade
  • Navigates multiple classrooms and multiple teacher expectations with developing confidence
  • Utilizes Academic Help on Wednesdays to get homework done and to meet with teachers
  • Proactively emails teachers when needed and replies to teachers’ emails with politeness

Seventh Grade
  • Articulates frustrations without placing blame on others; recognizes their own behaviors that may impede success in school or at home
  • Begins to effectively time manage responsibilities without as much parental involvement 
  • Refrains from social media for extended periods of time, such as when doing homework

Eighth Grade
  • Regularly participates in Harkness discussions and is willing to express their opinions and take a chance by sharing in a group setting
  • Contributes to the household through chores and assistance in daily family needs
  • Self-regulates when angry or frustrated - seeks a quiet space, walks away if appropriate, asks for help with respect

In simplest terms, executive functioning is how effectively a human navigates being human. Executive functioning must be taught, practiced, redirected, corrected, encouraged, and applauded. Student grit and self-agency will serve each one of our Harbor Day students in the future, and if school and home partner together, your child will graduate from HDS not only with an exceptional academic education, but they will utilize their education to its fullest in high school and beyond. 


About the Author:
Ms. Schmid is the Language Arts Learning Specialist, Lower School Language Arts Chair, and a Sixth Grade Advisor. With over twenty years of experience in elementary education, Mrs. Schmid has her Master of Arts in Education with an emphasis in Psychology, a California Teaching Credential, and extensive training in learning modalities and curriculum development. She has served as the Language Arts Coordinator for the Village School in Pacific Palisades, chaired several WASC and CAIS Language Arts Accreditations at distinguished independent schools, studied at Columbia University’s Teachers College in both the Reading Project and Writing Project, and most recently trained with Dr. Lynn Meltzer, a leading expert in the field of executive function. As a passionate educator, Mrs. Schmid enjoys supporting students to overcome challenges, embrace their strengths, and love learning. Her teaching has been recognized by the Johns Hopkins University Institute for the Academic Advancement of Youth as well as by the Disney Learning Partnership.

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Harbor Day School is a co-educational private independent K-8 school established in 1952.