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Transition to High School: Executive Functioning Skills Secondary Students Need

Deer in the headlights. That’s kind of what it feels like to look out at a sea of freshmen who are just transitioning to high school. One of the first teaching positions I accepted was at the ninth grade level. Working with freshmen is both rewarding and challenging. They are just learning what it means to be a high school student, balancing responsibility with fun. Twelve years into teaching, I’ve taught freshmen almost every year. Of course, I love them. Yet, I’ve learned many of them require specific support with executive functioning skills.

Organization, group work behaviors, homework completion…these were not lessons I knew I would be teaching. Whether you are a middle school teacher preparing to help with the transition to high school, a parent of a soon-to-be freshman, or a high school teacher preparing for an incoming group of students, this post should help you prepare. Let’s look at some key executive functioning skills students need as they transition to high school.

6 Executive Functioning Skills for High School Transition


Often, students don’t know how to take notes. Research has proven the value of note taking improves student learning. Explicit note taking instruction can positively impact the quality of student notes and the amount of material they remember later.

It took me a while to figure out an effective way to take note taking. For a while, it was part of an isolated study skills unit. That didn’t work. Then, I learned to embed it in my daily lessons. By providing students with multiple options, including traditional and creative approaches, students will become more confident with note taking. Almost always, I prioritize taking notes by hand.

Also, note taking includes planner use! Students need to know how to record and take notes on upcoming projects, assignments, and tests. Show students how to write in study plans. Reading? It’s homework! Model how to write reading an independent book in the student organizer.


Students need to know how to organize their work. Many high school students use binders. Incoming freshmen have actually brought me their binders, near tears, asking me for help. Where should they put their folders? How should they organize their binders? They just need guidance.

As I pass out work, I always make it a point to explicitly tell students to keep it for later reference. Otherwise? Yep, it ends up in the recycle bin. Periodically, I make time to have a binder cleaning party, which is more or less a process of writing on the board what students need to keep (class notes, any pages that will help them study, etc.) and what they can get rid of (notes to friends, old Dorito bags, pencil nubs, etcetera). We have to create and model a maintenance routine.

When I see a student with loose-leaf papers coming out of his or her ears, it’s time to stop. We have a conversation. I help him or her re-organize, and together, we set a goal for how to maintain a binder that will support learning.

How do you want students to organize their binders? Letting them choose is fine, but sometimes, they need a starting point. I recommend my students have a labeled folder for each class. They put them inside their three-ring binder with loose-leaf paper and their writing utensils.


To: [email protected]

From: [email protected]


When are you going to put in my grade?

Incoming freshmen often lack polite email communication skills. They may need help with an assignment or feel disgruntled about a recent grade. They have questions about upcoming tests and…always…want to know if they can have extra credit. I love receiving emails from students, but not when the tone is brash.

I used to get upset. Then, it dawned on me. They haven’t been taught. That’s why email etiquette is an executive functioning skill I teach year after year. Not only does it help students be more confident when contacting the teacher, it also prepares them for future real-world communication.

Spending time front-loading email communication skills is a way to make writing relevant. And, it pays dividends in the long run. Here is the email etiquette unit I use.

6 executive functioning skills to ease the transition to high school #backtoschool #HighSchoolELA


Often, students aren’t sure how to study. If you’ve ever handed a student a study guide and told them to study for the test on Friday, you know what I mean. Explicitly teaching students how to study is the best way to help them both now and in the future. How?

Offer different approaches. Show students digital tools like Quizlet and review videos, but don’t forget the traditional forms as well. Synthesizing notes. Creating their own test questions and answering them. Identifying the main ideas from required readings.

Enrich it. Create small groups and ask students to re-teach the materials to peers. Have them create mnemonic devices that deepen their connections with the course content.

Most importantly, demonstrate how students need to be practicing these study skills in advance by sprinkling opportunities in throughout the unit. Incoming freshmen need to understand that studying should not be a night before the exam cram session.


The middle school brain has a hard time with metacognition. Incoming high school students are just learning the value of thinking about thinking. Metacognition is important. Students need to know strategies available to them as readers and writers. Also, they need to know how and when to put those strategies into action strategically.

For example, when students are reading a text independently, do they focus on making purposeful connections that deepen their understanding of the story? If the author is providing clues about an important yet unstated story event, do students pause to recognize an inference is needed?

How about with study skills? Are students aware of the study skills available to them, and can they choose the most fitting approach from the options in their tool belt? Do they reflect on their learning, effort, and growth? When students are just beginning high school, making them aware of metacognition is important.


Student: We are done!

Teacher: How did you finish so quickly?

Student: Simple! We split the page up. Each of us did 2 questions, and then we wrote down each others’ answers.

Ugh. Group work skills must be taught in order for valuable learning to take place. In the workplace, students will need to be able to truly collaborate with others, not just divide and conquer.

In order to teach group work, I’ve found it helps to conduct a mini lesson. What should group work look like? What should it sound like? Model it with a small group of students, and then practice. Like any other classroom procedure or expectation, make sure to conduct a refresher lesson if you notice students are reverting back to their old ways.

The most effective way I’ve found to encourage healthy collaboration is by joining small groups.

I listen. 

Jaelyn: “I think your paper is really good. I don’t see anything you need to fix.”

I join in and model.

Me: “You’re right, Jaelyn. Lisa’s paper is really strong. But, let’s see if we can find some ways to give her feedback so that she can grow even more as a writer. What about the conclusion? Do you see any way she could tie it into the introduction to frame the essay and bring it full circle?”

Students appreciate guidance. When we make ourselves present during group work time, we are showing how much we value it. It’s a priority for us, so it should be for students as well.

Hopefully this list of executive functioning skills will help you to ease students’ transition to high school. What executive functioning skills do you teach explicitly? Lauralee from Language Arts Classroom shares some additional tips in this post.