Executive Functioning Strategies in Physical Education

Coming off a spring/summer having read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg & Drive by Daniel Pink, my brain was swimming with ideas about how I could best design my units and lessons with cues and routines where student motivation is maximized.  As most teachers know, it can be a bit overwhelming to try to orchestrate the new (and old) innovative teaching practices and initiatives that we come across through our various modes of professional development.

For all of the teachers at my school, in-service meetings prior to the start of this year included a full-day workshop about executive functioning by Dr. Georgia Bozeday from Rush Neuro-Behavior Center.  Executive functioning is the mental processes involved in planning, organizing, strategizing, and managing time and space.  Mastery in executive functioning skills are better predictors for success than IQ.  With student attention spans shrinking, in order to make the most out of class time together, it’s crucial that teachers build in routines and motivational elements that will allow students to work with purpose while allowing time for autonomy.

Using some of the strategies provided by the executive functioning workshop has allowed me to build in some simple visual cues that have made a huge difference in maximizing activity time as well as the retention of lesson concepts and strategies.

Here are some strategies that I’ve adopted in my physical education classes that have vastly improved productivity:

1.  Establish routines that are purposeful and motivating

As teachers, it’s important to model a consistent message in order to properly motivate our students.  Too often, teachers establish routines that contradict the intended philosophy or mission of the school (i.e. Having the students come into the gym and sit in squads or stand on a line to begin class).   Establish a routine to start class with movement, or better yet, an instant activity.   Involve the students in tasks such as taking attendance or setup to save time and promote autonomy. Warm up board agenda

2.  Make the agenda for the lesson visible.

This takes a bit more planning, but it is worth it.  Display how long each class activity or discussion will take and stick to it.  Short, manageable time blocks should be color coded to allow for consistency in routines and allow students to budget their attention spans.

3. Make the time visible

            The standard clock on the wall isn’t always the best solution.  Yes, we want our students to be able to tell time, but a supplemental timing device can do wonders for the students and the teacher.  The best use of my P.E. budget thus far has been purchasing a large digital clock from http://www.bigtimeclocks.biz/.  The gym I belong to had them installed a few months ago and it was amazing how much it kept me on track with my own workouts.  Having the ability to quickly toggle from the time-of-day to a countdown timer gives the students a quick visual about how class time continuously ticks away, motivating students to use class time wisely.

White board w/ clock

4.  Display lesson objectives using standard(s) and success criteria

Building in a routine of discussing and incorporating the learning standards in “kid-friendly language” provides a purpose to each lesson.  Providing a criterion to measure success gives them something to aim for.  How can we expect students to be motivated without providing meaning and a measureable level of success? It would be like doing archery without a target.

5.  Maximize your planning time

Using executive functioning strategies in your planning time will increase your productivity as a teacher.  Multi-tasking is a myth; dedicate your time (as you see fit) into blocks and stick to it.  For example, create dedicated time blocks for such things as lesson planning, grading/data collection, email/phone communication, etc.  Too often, being self-disciplined enough to finish a task before moving on to the next one turns our lives into one continuous rat race.  Choose your approach to email/phone communication with respect to your time.  Before typing up a long email to a parent, ask yourself if a quick phone call would be better to reduce the risk of tone/message being misinterpreted (thus, wasting more time to deliver your intended message).  Make lists and check off completed tasks.  It releases endorphins and gives you a boost to complete further tasks.

For these routines and strategies to become habits, it’s important to be dedicated and self-disciplined (it takes 6-8 weeks for routines to become habits).  It’s easy to continue with business as usual and place blame on any number of outside forces with regard to productivity, or lack thereof.  I strongly encourage physical educators to try (and stick with) some of these strategies to see improvement in student motivation and class productivity.

Please let me know how it goes, and/or share additional strategies that have worked for you.