A True Focus: Executive Functioning and Attention

Executive function challenges can be extremely overwhelming for children, disrupting all aspects of learning.

“Executive function” is often thought of as the management system of the brain, controlling several skills, including: 

  • Planning: Setting goals ahead of time and meeting them 
  • Attention: Focusing on a task, tuning out distractions, and following multiple-step directions
  • Organizing: Keeping track of lessons, materials, and assignments
  • Regulation and Self-monitoring: Managing emotions and regulating reactions 
  • Shifting Sets: Easily adapting to changing situations and transitioning when necessary
  • Time Management: Understanding and being attuned to time awareness and the passage of time
  • Initiation: Getting started on tasks and assignments

At West End Day School, we focus on all of these areas, helping to set our children up for holistic success.

We take an “it takes a village” approach to building and fostering these skills in academic and social settings, and we do that with the help of our students, teachers, Speech-Language Pathologists, counselors, and occupational therapists. 

Faculty member of West End Day School, a special ed school in NYC, helping two students on their homework

Our Approach: In The Classroom

When setting up our classrooms, these areas of executive function are top of mind. Here is an overview of our in-classroom accommodations.

  • Supportive Visuals: Visuals are used throughout the entire day to reinforce directions and schedules. A daily, visual schedule of subjects and class times is previewed every morning and referenced repeatedly throughout the day.
  • Scaffolding Materials and Interactions: Our assignments and directions are broken down into manageable pieces with step-by-step instructions along the way.
  • Frequent Teacher Check-ins: We check in with students early and often to ensure they are not only fully understanding assignments and directions, but also feeling oriented for learning.
  • Thoughtful Seating: Our classroom seating takes into consideration any attentional interferences, proximity to the speaker, and the need for additional support.
  • Leading by Example: Our teachers help students hone in on their executive functioning skills by actively using executive function tools throughout the day. For example, you might see a teacher drawing on a clock to help with “time checks” and time management, or you may hear them talking through strategies for prioritizing and organizing content - or even modeling self-talk to help regulate emotions.
  • Break Taking: It can be difficult for students to sustain attention, tune out distractions, stay organized, and inhibit impulses throughout their long days. At West End Day School, we encourage time to “reset” and take breaks, so our students can be their most successful selves. 
  • Positive Reinforcement that Encourages Effective Emotion Regulation: Managing and regulating emotions and impulses throughout the school day can be difficult for students. At West End Day School, we employ mindful, class-wide incentives and strategies that never shame students, but aim to help them feel more in control and more able to manage the things they feel. 

Taking on Executive Function Together: Study Skills Groups

Once our students are comfortable making executive functioning strategies and routines a part of their individual school days, they will be introduced into Study Skills Groups, groups taught directly by our Speech-Language Pathologists.

These Study Skills Group lessons cover: 

  • Overall organization, paraphrasing, note-taking, highlighting, time management and other techniques that provide a foundation for greater academic independence.
  • Activities that encourage reflective thinking on learning styles and what motivates them to learn in a certain way. Our upper-grade classes also learn strategies for increased situational awareness, improved visual memory, and planning for longer-term assignments.