What is executive functioning, and why is it important in your classroom?


Ever look inside a student’s backpack or binder, and it looks like a bomb went off inside?  Ever have a student who will blurt out seemingly random things?  Or, ever have a student who sits for long periods of time, hesitating to start a learning task or activity? If you have seen these behaviors in students, these may be signs of executive functioning issues.

Executive functions are “a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation” (www.ldonline.org).  These functions are controlled by the frontal lobe of the brain, and, if impaired, it makes it very difficult for a child to find success in your classroom, even if they are highly intelligent and want to learn (which is all children in my belief).

Although executive function issues are more common than one might think in students (and adults), how to recognize students struggling with executive skills and how to address these behaviors once you notice them is not often covered in general education classes, and only sometimes in special education classes.  

The school I work at is specifically geared for students who struggle with executive functioning.  Below, I have provided a list of the key skills, and strategies that we use at our school to support students’ growth.  

(Honestly, these are skills that anyone, regardless of their level of executive function could benefit from working on… I know I could!)

Some executive function skills impact a student’s oral and written work production, primarily, the first four listed below.

Executive Function Skill #1: Organization

This skill enables a student to keep track of their belongings, assigning them a logical place.  If a student struggles with organization, they might frequently leave belongings behind, or not have a system for filing papers.  This skill also enables students to keep track of things mentally, and if they struggle with it, they can easily lose track of what they were saying.

Strategies: Come up with routines and explicitly teach students organizational skills.  Make a “home” for things at their desk, in their notebooks, and in their backpack.  When things are missing, have them think back to where they were left.  To prevent things from going missing in the first place, create and use checklists.  When a student loses his train of thought, be patient, and have him write down a mental map of what they are trying to say.

Executive Function Skill #2: Initiation

Students who struggle with this skill find it difficult to start tasks.  You might see them sitting there frozen, uncertain of where to begin.

Strategies: For this type of student, provide step by step instructions in writing.  Sit down with them at the beginning of a process to ensure that they understand not only what to do to start, but what they need to do at each step in order to successfully complete the process.  Be sure to do frequent check-ins throughout the process, and celebrate successful completion.  That will make them more excited to start the next time!  

Executive Function Skill #3: Planning

When a student plans, they set-up a goal, create steps to get there, and figure out which parts are the most important to getting there.  If a student struggles with this skill, they either cannot think of the ultimate goal, or, if they can think of the goal, have trouble prioritizing the and/or sequencing the steps necessary to get there.

Strategies: Help this student generate their final goal/outcome collaboratively, then, scaffold the planning process.  This scaffold might involve talking through the planning process, or offering them a flowchart and feedback to guide their thinking about the plan.

Executive Function Skill #4: Working Memory

Students who struggle with their working memory may forget directions, even if they have repeated multiple times.  They also may lose track of what they are doing in the middle of a process because they have forgotten what they are supposed to be doing.

Strategies: Have the student verbalize their process; this increases the likelihood of them remembering what to do.  For students whose working memories are severely impacted, chunking the assignment into smaller parts based upon how much they can remember can be helpful.  These students can also benefit from having written directions for all tasks, and from having notecards during assignments and tests with factual information, which can enable them to perform more in depth critical thinking.

This next four executive functions are more related to a student’s behavior:

Executive Function Skill #5: Self-Awareness

A self-aware student is able to perceive social reactions from others, and see how their own actions create responses in others.  Students whose executive functioning is impacted may not be aware of how others perceive them or aware of actions that they take (or even sometimes of annoying noises that they make).  They may also not be able to objectively understand how they are doing with learning in your class.

Strategies: Point out behaviors that they exhibit that are non-preferred in a learning environment, and explain to the student (privately) how they are impacting others.  For instance, you might tell a student, “when you click your mechanical  pencil repeatedly, it interrupts other students’ focus.”  Build a relationship where a student feels comfortable asking how others are reacting to them, and make it clear that you are comfortable with them asking this.  Have students develop an understanding of what “self-awareness” is, and have them keep a journal of their self-impressions, which you can review with them and tell them which parts are accurate and which are not.

Executive Function Skill #6: Inhibition

Students who have strong executive function can inhibit impulsive behaviors.  Those who do not, may blurt out comments at inappropriate times, touch things they are not supposed to, or jump to conclusions without taking time to think about an issue.

Strategies: Make behavioral expectations clear, and use positive reinforcement with positive behaviors are performed.  It is also good to offer students an alternative.  For instance, if you know an impulsive student will be in a room with many exciting things she might grab on a table, instruct her to put her hand in her pocket or to grab the table leg to avoid the non-preferred behavior of grabbing an item of the table.  If a student says something impulsive, make them aware of the inappropriate nature of the comment in a non-judgmental way, and tell them what a more appropriate response would be.  

Executive Function Skill #7: Emotional Control

Students who do not have emotional control may overreact to peer’s comments or teacher’s comments.  If they have an emotional outburst or tantrum, it may take them a long time to be able to calm themselves.

Strategies: Let the student talk about how they are feeling in a calm, safe place.  Be sure to catch them when they are “in control” and compliment them.  Also, helping the child find a coping strategy that works for them personally can go a long way, whether it’s to take a cool-down walk, to write in a journal, paint a picture, or go speak with a friendly adult who might tell them a joke or funny story.

Executive Function Skill #8: Flexibility

Students who are flexible do well with changes, transitions, and perspectives different than their own.  Those who struggle with flexibility also struggle with those three aspects.  An assignment changing, a teacher getting sick and having a sub, or participating in a debate all might be difficult for a student who struggles with flexibility.  Their rigid thinking can also cause them to think of thing in life as “following rules” that cannot be broken.

Strategies: To help with their rigidity, take opportunities to show them that “rules” can be bent and the outcome is still positive.  For instance, when playing a game, show them that changing the rules slightly might still make the game fun.  This starts to show them that flexibility can be ok.  Also, if you know any transitions or changes are coming up, it is healthy to warn the student and help them think of how to be prepared for the change.  Lastly, to help the student be open to different perspectives, be sure to expose them to curriculum that prizes lots of different perspectives on issues in math, science, history, and language arts.

When we teachers help students who struggle with executive function skills work on these strategies, they feel more comfortable learning in our classrooms, and feel, as one of my students said, “like my teachers finally get how I learn.”
What executive functioning strategies do you use with your students?

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