A headline in this weekend’s Globe and Mail caught my eye: “Rethink your junk drawer,” exhorts Shirley Meisels, design and organizing expert. “Think of it as a Japanese bento box.”

Well, Shirley, you will be happy with my activities in the classroom this week.

I have been thinking a lot about students’ executive functioning (EF) skills, all those strategies that help students stay organized, think logically, and self-regulate. According to Joyce Cooper-Kahn and Laurie Dietzel (2008), the executive functions “are a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation.”

As I teach in a school where almost 25% of the students have Individualized Education Programs (IEP’s), I spend considerable time helping students with weak executive functioning. For some, this will be a lifelong struggle (especially those students with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome).

But the cause is irrelevant. The reality is that many activities in school require executive functioning. So every lesson requires scaffolding that will help build mental order. Which brings me back to Shirley.

When Shirley first encountered the junk drawer, it was a jumbled mess. So she dumped it and installed compartments. Then she sorted like with like. Alas, many of my students lack idea compartments. Their brains are one giant junk drawer of tangled information, and when asked to locate something, they are stymied.

So I work to create mental shelving. How?

First off, I consistently use templates (“shelving”) with higher level thinking skills**. **What this does is reduce the cognitive load: students only need to focus on thinking, not their thinking-and-how-they-are-going-to-organize-thinking. (Students with weak EF skills are **not** multi-taskers. Cognitive overload will cause the learning fuse to blow.)

So what does this look like in the classroom?

Let’s take math problem solving. At the beginning of the year, my students had no (remembered) strategies to organize their ideas. So I did some research and created a Math Problem Solving template. We glued this template inside a new notebook for easy reference and reviewed it numerous times. Then we numbered the notebook pages, allowing one page per problem.

Meanwhile, I copied a bunch of numbered word problems and made a little booklet for each student. We were ready to begin!

I modeled the steps, thinking out loud, while students watched me. (Don’t have them copy down at first—avoid multi-tasking! Just have them watch. Will it sometimes drive you crazy to go this slowly? Absolutely! But remember your ultimate goal.) At first, all I wanted the students to do was watch my thinking. The next day, I started with the same question. The students and I worked through the problem together, and they copied off the overhead. For a week, we did one problem a day together and it took about 30 minutes (per day–which might seem like a lot for one problem, but your patience will pay off!).

I gradually introduced independent think time at the beginning of class, encouraging students to set up their pages, find the facts, figure out the “Big Q,” and show their thinking. I repeated this mantra to the students: “You don’t need to SOLVE the problem! Your goal is to UNDERSTAND the problem and SHOW YOUR THINKING about the problem.”

After several months, I am now at the stage where student are keen to share their thinking. Volunteers come up the overhead (or Elmo) and share. Students compare and contrast their thinking. When problem-solving time is up (usually around 20 minutes now for one problem), I collect their notebooks and booklets. By far, this is their favourite math activity.

Watch for more “shelf-building” activities next week! And in the meanwhile, why not share how YOU build mental shelving?

Love these ideas! Thanks!

Thank you for sharing. I totally agree that teaching a familiar framework builds confidence, encourages risk taking and frees the learner to focus on the math work. In my Kindergarten room I strive to use a simple framework or routine. This allows the learner to know his/her job, encourages independence and provides a brief, productive work experience. Once the framework is well established then I am able to increase the challenge. For example, to provide for daily math practice, I have eight different math stations that students use. I have assigned the same partner for long periods of time. The stations are used every day. and run for 9 to 11 minutes. Because the stations are designed for daily practice the concepts have been introduced and taught during a different block. The tasks are familiar, some change monthly, a few include a product and all of them provide daily practice of concepts learned in previously months. Math stations happen at the same time every day. On any given day you can now see the students check the pocket chart for their station number, take the tub to a place in the room that accommodates the two students to complete the tasks independently without disturbing neighbors.

Thanks for the feedback! Great ideas, Liz!