Teach the “Hidden Curriculum”

by Leslie E. Packer, PhD, 2009


For years, I have been trying to educate parents and educators about the need to assess for — and then address — any deficits in the executive functions. Teachers usually immediately understand if I ask them, “Is the student a disorganized mess?” Their heads nod vigorously, but when I ask them where the student’s plan addresses those issues, they have no answer. Some plans do address “study skills,” and study skills certainly require executive functions, but when I look at how most plans address study skills, they generally are not using systematic direct instruction with reinforcement to teach executive functions or compensatory strategies. And so students stumble through school from year to year, never learning good organizational skills, how to prioritize, how to develop and execute a realistic and successful plan or project, or how to get themselves to start, complete, and turn in their assignments without parents and teachers all prompting them.

Today, I came across a 2007 study on the Institute for Education Sciences site, Perceptions and Expectations of Youth With Disabilities A Special Topic Report of Findings From the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2) (pdf). The study had surveyed students with disabilities in terms of positive outcomes and negative outcomes. What really struck me was that the only measure on which the students rated themselves as “Not very or not at all good” was the question on “Being well organized” (Table 1). Here are the percentage of students in the survey from each educational classification who responded “not very or not at all good” on being well organized:

Learning Disability – 20.7
Speech/Language Impairment – 17.5
Mental Retardation – 14.6
Emotional Disturbance – 23.6
Hearing Impairment – 17.5
Visual Impairment – 16.5
Orthopedic Impairment – 32.4
Other Health Impairment – 33.1
Autism – 38.1
Traumatic Brain Injury – 23.0
Multiple Disabilities – 24.9
Deaf-Blindness – 31.9

Because many students with the disorders covered on this web site are classified under “Other Health Impaired,” these data provide somewhat stunning evidence that organizational skills are an important area to assess and address.


The importance of the executive functions is discussed elsewhere on this site, but it is worth reiterating that unless we directly teach children and teens organizational skills, some of them will never figure it out for themselves. We can get them through school by lending them our frontal lobes or meeting their responsibilities for them by packing up their work and nagging them to do certain things, but if they have not acquired some skills and strategies by the time they graduate, what will happen to them as adults? Will they be able to organize themselves to prepare a resume and apply for a job — and if they get an interview, will they show up for it or will they have not made a note of the date and time? Will they be able to keep a job if they are disorganized, pay their taxes on time, or do any of the many things that we do on a daily basis as adults?

For too long, the “hidden curriculum” — a term that others may use to refer to social culture but that I use to refer to executive skills — has remained hidden and basically ignored.

It is time to recognize that these skills need to be taught and developed, starting in kindergarten and continuing throughout all grade levels. At each developmental age and level, there are skills that the child or student needs. Some may develop the skills without direct instruction, but others will need a curriculum. Rather than assuming, let’s assess, and then be prepared to do what teachers do best — teach.

Just as states develop curricula for each grade, it is time for them to develop curricula that incorporate organizational skills and other executive functions. In the meantime, there are things that can be implemented on a building-wide level to start promoting better organizational skills as part of a positive behavior intervention system, e.g.:

  • All school personnel can meet to discuss what problems they see with executive skills and commit to participating in a building-wide program to produce better organized students. At that meeting, they can review the major executive functions and begin to develop a set of goals and expectations for each skill for each grade level. Teachers on each grade level can then meet later and discuss ideas for teaching and assessing skills for their grade levels.
  • At the building meeting, review building codes and classroom rules with an eye toward incorporating building and classroom rules that relate to organizational skills and executive functions.
  • Teachers on each grade level can discuss classroom rules for their grade so that all teachers are incorporating some rules relating to executive functions, e.g., a positive rule for younger students might be, “Keep your belongings neat and tidy,” while a positive rule for older students might be, “Enter all assignments and intermediate deadlines in your planner completely and accurately.”
  • Teach the rule and incorporate rehearsal of the skill, feedback, and positive reinforcement.
  • Schools can implement a building-wide color-coding system whereby each content area is associated with one color, and that color-content pairing is consistent across all classes and all grades.
  • Be consistent. Set up a color-coding system that matches colors to content areas and keep it consistent across all classes and grades in the building. Teach one visual organizer system starting in the lower grades and use it for all content areas and grades.

Those are just a few simple ideas. I know that teachers already have their hands full trying to meet curricular goals, but in the long run, is it more important that the student learn details that they probably will not remember by the end of the following marking quarter or is it more important to begin to develop skills that they will need their entire lives? What do you think?