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What are Executive Function Skills and How Can I Help: A Guide for Educators


Executive function skills are the building blocks of learning and doing well in school. These skills help us plan our homework, focus on a test, remember the teacher’s words, and switch from one subject to another without getting lost or falling behind. Improving these skills is like leveling up in a game — it helps us tackle school work more effectively and succeed in class. This blog will guide you through these skills and how we can strengthen them for academic success.

What are Executive Function Skills?

Broadly, executive function refers to skills involved in cognitive tasks, including focusing, planning, and abstract thought. There are many skills encompassed by executive function, including:

  • Focus
  • Time management
  • Organization
  • Planning
  • Memory (both verbal and nonverbal)
  • Task initiation
  • Cognitive flexibility
  • Metacognition
  • Self-control 
  • Behavioral regulation and managing emotions
  • Ability to transfer attention from one activity to another

Executive function skills are not innate abilities but rather develop over time, much like learning to play an instrument or speak a different language. These skills mature as children grow, particularly entering adolescence. School experiences, extracurricular activities, and social interactions are vital opportunities for students to enhance these skills. 

Who Struggles with Executive Function Skills? 

Many students may find it challenging to develop executive function skills as they progress through their academic journey. It’s not limited to those with formal diagnoses, but often students with the following conditions may need additional support:

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) 
  • Dyslexia 
  • Anxiety disorders 
  • Twice-exceptional (2E) individuals 
  • Depression

Supporting Students with Executive Function Challenges 

Students with executive function-related diagnoses typically benefit from a team approach involving educators, medical professionals, and family members. The approach to supporting these students should be individualized and comprehensive, ensuring they receive the necessary support in all aspects of their lives, including academic and extracurricular activities. Students need to be explicitly taught these skills like any other. 

Mindset for Improving Executive Functioning Skills 

Students with executive function difficulties can improve these skills with specific cognitive mindsets and direct teaching. Encouraging the following approaches can help them develop these crucial skills: 

“Discipline = Freedom” Mindset 

  • Encouraging self-discipline leads to greater freedom and independence. 

“Process Focused” Mindset: 

  • Emphasizing the importance of the learning process over the end result. 

“Bottom of the Pyramid” Mindset:

  • We are building a strong foundation of basic skills before moving to more complex tasks. 

“Discipline of the Gift” Mindset:

  • Recognizing and nurturing individual talents and using them as a basis for development.

Role of an Executive Functioning Mentor/Coach In the educational setting, teachers, special educators, or designated mentors act as coaches to neurodiverse students. They provide targeted support to help students develop organizational and functional skills, and students rely on these adults to guide them in enhancing these skills. When supporting students in developing executive function skills, consider these key areas of focus:

  • Planning and breaking down tasks
  • Time management and task prioritization
  • Improving study strategies and cognitive flexibility
  • Encouraging self-advocacy
  • Routine development

Classroom Strategies to Enhance Executive Function 

Educators can employ various strategies to support the development of executive function skills. Incorporating the entire educational team in this process, including parents, teachers, and other support staff, will improve student outcomes. Below you will find an executive function skill, along with strategies for supporting the development of this skill within a classroom setting.

Time management

  • Model the frequent use of timers as a means of pacing throughout lessons
    • Set a timer for independent work so students know exactly how long they have to work on the assignment
    • Set timers within a testing block to act as checkpoints to help students pace the exam

Organization

  • Model an organizational system for classroom materials, assignments, notes, etc. within the class
    • Rather than asking students to “put that away,” explain exactly where you might put it to ensure easy access next time you need it. This might look like, “This is your homework for tomorrow. Please write the due date at the top right corner of the page, and put it in your blue homework folder to be sure you do not lose it.”

Focused attention

  • Consider ways of relating to student interests as a means to increase student attention
  • Provide time frames in which attention is most critical to be sure students are tuned in
  • Utilize multiple modalities of teaching to keep student engagement

Impulse control

  • Provide reminders of clear expectations, and hold students accountable with consequences if necessary
    •  “I see you are enthusiastic to share. Please raise your hand and wait to be called on, so we can ensure no one is interrupted.”

Task initiation 

  • Routines and structures help immensely when it comes to initiating a task. Consider making it clear to students when they are expected to begin the task. 
  • Consider the use of a countdown or a timer to increase task initiation.
  • Include the preparation steps to help students begin the task effectively
    • “Step 1: grab your pencil and ruler. Step 2: write your name at the top of the paper. Step 3: read the directions at the top, and begin”
    • The smaller the first step is, the easier students will find it to begin the task.

Emotional regulation 

  • Supporting emotional regulation often gives students the language and tools necessary to communicate their feelings and needs. 
  • For younger students consider a tool like an “I feel…. I need…” chart, in which students have various feelings and strategies to pick from to assist communication.
  • For older students, this may look like a conversation in which you offer a few strategies to the student, such as taking a quick walk, journaling or drawing for a few minutes, or talking with a trusted adult.

Cognitive flexibility 

  • The “thinking out loud” strategy effectively encourages cognitive flexibility in students. If you can model different ways of thinking about the same situation by talking through the different thoughts out loud, this shows students what it looks like to think more flexibly. 

Planning 

  • Consider a big project coming up, such as a 2-page report with citations. Walk students through what it might look like planning this project out. Show them what it looks like to brainstorm, create an outline, chunk the project, and create a citation page. Walking through the various aspects of a larger project will help students plan more effectively. 

Problem-solving 

  • “Think aloud” how you might go about solving the problem.
  • Consider breaking problem-solving down for students into more concrete steps.

Verbal and nonverbal working memory

  • When working memory is a challenge for students, it becomes increasingly important that students know where to go when they have forgotten something. Let’s say a student can’t remember when you said this next assignment was due and what the guidelines for the project were. If this student has access to one all-encompassing syllabus, they can use that as a reference whenever they struggle to remember deadlines or project guidelines. 
  • This is also supported through tools such as anchor charts posted within the classroom. Support student memory by allowing them to refer back to one familiar visual or tool. 

Educators can significantly impact students’ executive function skills development by understanding the challenges and employing strategic interventions. This not only aids in academic achievement but also overall personal development and readiness for future challenges.

For More:

1. What is Executive Function, and How does it relate to child development 

2. Executive Functioning: Implications for Education 

3. How to improve Executive Function 

4. 15 EF Strategies Every Teacher Can Use

5. What is Executive Function

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