Prioritizing: A Critical Executive Function

The executive function of prioritizing guides two types of tasks. Prioritizing is what takes place when the brain distinguishes main ideas from low-relevance details. It is also at work when students plan how to invest their time and effort.

In my previous post, Brain Development and Adolescent Growth Spurts, I suggested ways to build students’ organizational skills. This time, I look at helping them build prioritizing, time management, and goal-directed planning skills. My focus is still on the early adolescent years (ages 10-12), but the strategies can be tweaked to help students of all ages become more competent at recognizing higher-priority information and self-directed in planning their time.

First, let’s review why teachers are critically positioned to provide students’ brains with guided experiences that activate neural networks of executive functions. During children’s school years, their brains become more streamlined and efficient. Neuroplasticity, the process that rapidly prunes disused circuits and strengthens most-used circuits, means that when you give students ways to activate their executive functions, these highest control networks become stronger.

Activities to Support Developing Circuits for Prioritizing

Students should be explicitly taught and given opportunities to practice the executive function skill sets of prioritizing. In planning instruction, use the following guidelines to help students develop their awareness of what prioritizing is, and the practices that build their prioritizing power.

Prioritizing Relevance

1. Recognize skills that they already have.
Prioritizing is essential for students in all subjects. They use it when planning an essay, selecting which information to include in notes, or evaluating word problems in math for the relevant data. Start by having them reflect on which of these they already do successfully, and have a class discussion for sharing strategies and making students aware of the skills they already possess. Prompts include:

2. Experience prioritizing without fear of being “wrong.”
Show students a variety of photos, paintings, or video clips and invite their opinions about what they found to be the most important detail or big idea. Remind them that, with most art, the viewer is encouraged to relate and take away ideas that are personal and not necessarily those of the creator.

3. Prioritize the “best.”
Show students the systems that they already use for prioritizing quality. This helps them become conscious of the criteria by which they can prioritize relevance, validity, and quality throughout the curriculum and beyond. Here is a sample task:

4. Work with redacted notes.
This is a great scaffolding to guide students in prioritizing which information from lectures or texts they should be writing down and later reviewing.

Prioritizing Goals in Planning

Prioritizing for planning is what guides students to evaluate the order in which they’ll approach parts of a larger task, and which parts should get the most time and planning.

Give students opportunities to make their own prioritizing choices and experience the consequences of not meeting goals by the deadlines they set. Follow this with guidance through metacognition and an opportunity for revision to learn from their miscalculations. Scaffold their construction of prioritizing networks by having them estimate, keep records of their progress, and revise their plans when they’re not meeting their interval goalposts.

Here’s a sample of scaffolded prioritizing in planning:

Time Well Spent

Planning instruction and teaching units that activate executive function processing takes teacher and student time — and it’s time that’s already severely taxed. However, that time is a powerful investment as students build their executive functions to become self-directed learners who can prioritize, plan, and persevere with foresight as they achieve long-term goals.



See original text: