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3 tips for starting the new year off right

We all start the new year with high hopes for every student. This year, try making 3 small adjustments to help students with executive function issues improve their focus and flexibility.

As teachers and students return to school after summer break, students who struggle with executive function and other issues may need a little extra support.

Consider these 3 pieces advice from the authors of the new edition of Unstuck and On Target! An Executive Function Curriculum to Improve Flexibility, Planning, and Organization to help students who struggle with focus, flexibility, and social-emotional regulation.

Tip #1: DON’T blame or punish a student for behavior that is beyond his or her control

Students with brain-based differences, such as students with ASD or ADHD, may withdraw or throw a tantrum in response to increased demands. Regardless of how those challenges manifest themselves we have a choice in how we respond and how we interpret the cause of the behavior. We have to decide if the behavior is the result of a willful stubbornness, lack of motivation, non-compliance, or the result of a disability and a biological difference.

More simply put, is the student struggling because they can’t perform the skill or because they won’t?

Blaming or punishing a student for a behavior that is not within his or her control will not create a change in the behavior or encourage progress. Over time it will create a toxic environment that will impede other teaching and academic goals.

When, as teachers, we choose to assume a won’t, we are essentially rendering ourselves powerless. If instead of assuming willfulness, we assume there is a cognitive deficit or a lack of knowledge that is preventing the student from accessing or performing the skill, we open the door for progress and change through our teaching.

Cognitively reframing our own thinking about the cause of a student’s behavior empowers us to do something about it. We shift our thinking from being that teacher who is stuck with the behavior kid who won’t do what I need them to, to thinking about what is it my student can’t do, and how can I teach him?

The reality is, as teachers, we are already experts at this.

If you had a student in your classroom struggling to decode a reading passage, you would not stand over them demanding they just try harder. You would not take away their recess until they decoded the passage. You would thoughtfully consider where the skill breakdown was occurring, offer some explicit lessons to teach the skills, and offer reading material that matched their skill level.

Although the social and emotional challenges experienced by many of our students can be harder to pinpoint—and figuring out where the breakdown is occurring can be less obvious than in academics—supporting a student with a social-emotional disability is no different than for a student with a reading disability.

Arm yourself with information about the disability, figure out where the skill breakdown is occurring, offer explicit instruction, and meet the child where they are.

Unstuck and On Target!

Cover: Unstuck and On Target!

The Unstuck and On Target! curriculum includes a series of 21 small-group lessons that provide you with scripts, games, and activities to help your students develop flexibility, goal-directed behavior, sustained effort, problem solving, and self-monitoring skills.

Learn more!

Tip #2: Clearly articulate routines, schedules, and expectations

Students are better able to develop flexibility in a classroom that operates from clearly articulated routines and schedules. Early on, spend time reviewing your transition routines for between classes and activities. Make sure the routines and expectations are clear, and set aside time at the beginning of the year to practice these transitions in isolation.

The time dedicated to perfecting these transitions early will save you loads of student and teacher time and energy in the future.

These consistent frameworks and expectations will also support your student’s ability to cope when inevitable unexpected events occur.

In addition to clearly defined transition routines, dedicate time to thinking about the organization of your classroom and how you will instruct your students to use the classroom space and materials. You want to make sure that all of the clutter and visual distractions are eliminated and there are clear rules and routines for turning in work, getting ready to go home, etc. Again, provide ample opportunities for practicing these routines.

You’ll want to make sure your routines are visible and include the support your children need. Are your children reading yet? If not, make sure you have picture cues to support their understanding of the schedule. Are your children working on telling time? Add clocks to the schedule.

Finally, we’re all under incredible time constraints in school to make sure we fit it all in. In the midst of all these pressures be sure to allow time for students to complete these routines and expectations. Time well spent following through with your routines will prevent the fallout both academically and socially when students are rushed, unorganized, or unprepared.

Free webinar:

FREE WEBINAR: Unstuck and On Target: Improving Executive Function, On-Task and Flexible Behavior

PRESENTED BY the authors of Unstuck and On Target!, Lynn Cannon, M.Ed., and Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D.

WHEN: Wednesday, September 26, 4:00–5:00 p.m. ET

Register for the webinar!

Tip #3: Model flexibility

To maintain a flexible classroom and help students develop flexibility, you must be flexible yourself. The great thing about this strategy is it requires no advance planning and no materials creation, just a commitment to be flexible in your teaching.

One way to do this is to problem-solve both internally and externally in the presence of students when a student performance breaks down, hypothesize about the cause of the break-down, and brainstorm solutions.

For example, if a student is asked to write about his favorite movie and he puts his head down, seemingly refusing to write, work alongside him to figure out why he is not starting the task.

Careful investigation might reveal that the student doesn’t have a pencil, or that he has 5 favorite movies and he can’t choose.

This situation can then easily be remedied by providing a pencil or flexibly changing the direction the assignment to write about “one of your favorite movies.”

The second way to maintain a flexible classroom is to model flexibility. By highlighting a situation requiring flexibility, revealing how it makes you feel, and pointing out how you respond, you offer a framework for how to respond flexibly and the benefits of doing so.

For example, I really wanted to show you this video but the internet is not working. I am feeling really disappointed and frustrated but I will be flexible and show you a book now, and after recess I will plan to show you the video.

Finally, we can demonstrate flexibility by focusing on the goal of the lesson. A good teacher comes in with a plan for how an activity will run and what the students will do. There are times, though, when a portion of that plan or the expectation creates a challenge for a student.

For example, the students are required to cut out and sort their weekly spelling words but one student has a difficult time cutting and becomes upset when doing so. By keeping your eyes on the prize or identifying the goal of the lesson—which is to practice with the spelling words (not cutting)—the teacher can remove the burden of cutting and ensure that the student achieves the key goal.



Making small adjustments like these helps students who struggle with focus and flexibility modulate their own behavior. By understanding what’s behind their actions, clearly articulating routines and expectations, and modeling flexibility yourself, you’re giving your students their best chance of success!

Originally published: September 2018

More resources

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