Turning Theory into Practice #6 – Using Graphic Organizers to Teach Executive Functions

Todd Stanley

In the August 2019 edition of Teaching for High Potential, Tara Nyikos, Dianna Mullet, and Anne Rinn from the University of North Texas, wrote an article about executive dysfunction and strategies that can be used to help gifted students overcome them.

Executive dysfunctions are a lack of executive functions which are things such as flexible thinking, taking initiative, prioritizing skills, planning, self-monitoring, and organization. What the dysfunctions look like  in gifted students are backpacks exploding with papers, a constant scrambling to find things, students who, if you turn your back for even a second, will be off task by the time you turn back around, or the student who lacks grit and will not persevere when things become challenging. In other words, these students lack discipline—Not discipline in that they misbehave or don’t follow rules, rather the discipline it takes to learn about something. “Students with higher self-discipline habits, regardless of intellectual ability, tend to have higher levels of academic performance” (Renzulli, 2012).

The question then is how do you teach a gifted child discipline? The article provides many suggestions including:

  • Early bilingual training
  • Scaffolding
  • Authentic assignments
  • Mentors

The one I would like to put into practice is inquiry-based learning. Inquiry-based learning acts as an umbrella over such teaching strategies as project-based learning, problem-based learning, and case-based learning. The general idea of all of these is you give students something to explore and they must come up with a product that demonstrates what they learned from this journey.

Inquiry-based learning is a great way to develop self-discipline with students because it requires that students manage their time and it provides them a lot of choice, giving them opportunities to take responsibility. For example, if you give students two weeks to explore an essential question, how is the student going to divide up that two weeks? This is where you can offer supports for students regarding organization in the form of graphic organizers. There are three graphic organizers I have used repeatedly in my classroom that help distracted or hard to focus students to keep their eyes on the prize. These are:

  1. Student contract
  2. Calendar
  3. Rubric

A student contract is a graphic organizer that requires a student to sit down and imagine what their big picture learning is going to look like, then they have to break it down to determine how to get there. It helps to organize the thoughts of the students and focuses them to take their often grandiose ideas and funnel it down into something more tangible. It organizes their thoughts which can be one of the biggest challenges for a distractible gifted student. Then when the teacher is meeting with the student throughout the lesson, this contract can be referred to and used as a guide for the learning. And the student does not have to wait for the teacher to determine this, he can reference it throughout.

A second graphic organizer you can use with students is a calendar. This does not need to be anything detailed, just a blank calendar like the one you see here. Then the student determines how much time she is going to spend on each of the activities she decided are needed when she completed the contract. This does a good job of visually letting students see how the lesson will unfold across a period of time and cuts down on procrastination because they can see when items are due without it sneaking up on them. Then when the teacher sits down with student, in addition to looking at the contract, progress can be charted on the calendar and, if the student is behind, develop strategies that can be used to get her caught up.

A third graphic organizer is  a rubric. When it comes to the use of a rubric, I want students to develop their own criteria for what successful work looks like. I do this for a couple of reasons. The first one is it provides students product choice to demonstrate mastery. Students can find something that they are either excited about or taps into a skill they possess. For example, if a student is particularly skilled in drawing, he can develop a product that encapsulates what he has learned for the lesson as well as allowing him to develop his artistic skills.

The second thing a rubric does is forces students to come up with success criteria for what excellence looks like. They can see in their head, this is what I need to do for an A, this for a B, and so on. By them choosing criteria, they are much more aware of it than if the teacher had handed it down.

The third, and probably most important benefit of using a student-created rubric, is they have ownership of their learning. They are no longer being told by the teacher what they have to do in order to get a good grade. They are determining this by themselves, meaning any expectations that have been set have been set by them. This way if students are able to be challenged at a higher level, they can set the lofty criteria in their rubric.

Students can pull the rubric out at any time during the learning process to help them to visualize the finish line. It serves as a reminder as to what their goal should look like and, with the contract and calendar, offering support on the steps in this process. It also can be reviewed when conferencing with students and compared to the contract and calendar.

These graphic organizers can be used for any inquiry-based learning students are doing, no matter what the specific strategy the teacher uses to drive the inquiry. The largest benefit for using them with gifted students is it helps to take their big ideas and boil them down into a practical product that shows mastery of learning. This in turn helps gifted students to develop their executive functions and become more focused learners in the process.

Todd Stanley is the author of many teacher-education books. He served as a classroom teacher for 18 years and is currently the gifted services coordinator for Pickerington Local Schools (OH). You can follow Todd on Twitter (@the_gifted_guy) or visit his website to can access blogs, resources, and view presentations he has given concerning gifted education.

The views expressed herein represents the opinion of the author and not necessarily the National Association for Gifted Children.