Executive functioning skills are some of the most foundational elements for academic and social success. They are the skills that help us to plan, stay organized, pay attention to important information, use strategies to get us back on track when we veer off course, be flexible when things don’t go our way, and persevere through challenges.
Executive functioning skills aren’t just an extra. They are the critical foundation that allows kids and teens (and yes, even adults) to be successful in the classroom and beyond. With that, they deserve attention.
Can executive functioning skills be taught?
Yes. Executive functioning skills are malleable. This means that we, as educators, can help kids and teens improve these skills over time.
The teen that struggles with bringing the correct materials to class can learn new strategies and techniques to help them be more organized. The student who acts out in aggressive ways when things go to plan can acquire stronger skills for self-control and flexibility. They can learn new coping strategies and improve their ability to problem-solve. The learner that zones out during important classroom instruction can practice strategies to check in with themselves, helping them improve focus over time.
These are just a few examples but they prove one simple point: executive functioning skills can be taught, practiced, and strengthened over time. Already set to get started? Here are some executive functioning resources to make your life easier.
Get started with an interactive executive functioning workbook.
When can executive functioning skills be taught?
As an educator myself, I know that time is valuable and precious in the classroom. Here are some ways to sneak in executive functioning instruction:
- Advisory period – Arrange students in small groups that meet on a regular basis. Use this advisory time to work on all sorts of skills, including executive functioning skills.
- Morning meeting – Plan time each day for morning meeting. Use this time to perform greetings, check-in about emotions, and teach valuable skills like executive functioning skills.
- The 1st 10 minutes of class – If no other time is available, spend the first few minutes of class discussing and teaching EF skills to your learners. This works whether you teach math, science, reading, or anything else.
- Academic tutoring support time – For learners who need academic tutoring support, add executive functioning skills instruction into what they are learning.
- Health or life skills class – Since executive functioning skills are in fact life skills, it is completely logical to add them into a health or life skills time.
Why should executive functioning skills be taught explicitly?
Executive functioning skills require support, practice, and direct instruction. Here are 12 reasons why these skills should be taught explicitly:
#1 Executive functioning skills are shaped, not innate.
Kids and teens aren’t born with a toolbox filled with executive functioning skills. Instead, they are born with the capacities to improve them over time. While it’s true that some learners acquire these skills early on at home, through interactions with peers, and as part of the hidden curriculum, many learners do not.
These skills deserve time to be shaped and supported in the best ways possible. Quite often, that means explicitly teaching skills like how to organize your binder, study strategies, techniques to persevere through challenges, and how to keep your cool in times of stress.
#2 Executive functioning skills are life skills.
Sometimes when we talk about executive functioning skills, we only think of them through the lens of school when actually these skills are used our entire lives. We use planning and time management to schedule our daily and weekly responsibilities. We use organization and task initiation to keep a tidy space at home. We use self-control, flexibility, and perseverance to handle difficult decisions every day.
Executive functioning skills are not just academic skills, but life skills, and they deserve to be taught.
#3 Executive functioning skills build independence.
As educators, one of the main goals we have for learners is to teach them to be independent. Stronger EF skills can help with just that. These abilities help kids and teens make better choices, manage their time well, plan, and work through challenges. In essence, all of these abilities also help them become independent. Executive functioning skills don’t just help kids and teens in the moment; they empower them to make positive choices for the future.
#4 Executive functioning skills impact social development.
Social skills and executive functioning skills are linked, which provides another reason why EF skills should be targeted and taught. When learners have meaningful conversations with others, they need to use working memory to think about what they want to talk about and attention skills to stay focused. We also use self-control skills on a regular basis to make socially-sound choices. When we strengthen executive functioning skills, we are strengthening social skills too.
#5 Strong executive functioning skills support academic growth.
Think about all the executive functioning skills kids and teens use during the academic day: focusing on instruction (attention), keeping materials orderly (organization), starting work right away (task initiation), knowing what material to study for a quiz (metacognition), working through challenges (perseverance). The list goes on.
Strong executive functioning skills support academic growth. While it’s true that any educator can tell you this from personal experience, the research also supports the link between executive functioning skills and academic success.
#6 Some learners need to learn these skills explicitly.
I’ll be the first to say I’m a huge advocate for integrating executive functioning skills into the curriculum and what you are already teaching. This is efficient and often effective. Not all kids and teens pick up on this type of learning, though. Sometimes, skills need to be taught explicitly.
This means teaching exactly what organization is, what it looks like, when you should engage in the skill, and how to assess yourself as you go. When you think about it, there is actually a lot to learn for every single executive functioning skill! And since some learners will not pick up on all of these skills on their own, they need to be taught.
#7 Executive functioning skills are a component of social emotional learning.
Social emotional learning has gotten a lot of attention lately, and that’s a great thing. It’s worth mentioning, though, that executive functioning skills fit into social emotional learning quite well. That’s because they are skills related to self-management, decision-making, and self-awareness. Teaching executive functioning skills support social emotional learning too.
#8 Executive functioning interventions are critical for struggling learners.
Executive functioning skill instruction is truly helpful for every learner. With that said, struggling learners need these skills are a far greater level. These are the kids who forget their binders, misplace homework, and can’t focus in class. These are the young adults who get frustrated when the schedule doesn’t go the way they thought it would and give up when questions on a test seem too hard.
These are the learners who need executive functioning skills right away. When a learner struggles with executive functioning skills like organization, time management, and planning, we should take it as seriously as when someone struggles with reading or math.
#9 Research shows executive functioning skills are important.
Even though any educator can tell you that executive functioning skills are critical to academic success on their own, it’s worth mentioning that the research supports this too. Strong executive functioning skills can be an early indicator of academic success.
And this just makes sense, right? When learners are better able to manage their time, focus during lessons, and persevere through difficult tasks, they are going to do better academically. Executive functioning skills certainly strengthen all academic skills from reading to math and beyond.
#10 Teaching EF skills proactively can reduce academic challenges later on.
So often when we think of executive functioning instruction, we think of it as an intervention for struggling learners. While it’s true that learners who already struggle with basic executive functioning skills absolutely need this type of support (as mentioned above), sometimes this can miss the bigger picture.
By teaching executive functioning skills proactively, we can reduce academic challenges later on. It essentially gives kids and teens the building blocks they need to be successful from the start.
I’m an advocate for teaching EF skills early on, even in elementary school. Short stories can teach skills like planning, organization, and time management. Games like Jenga and Pictionary can provide practice with self-control, planning, and perseverance.
If you are looking for where to start, I developed executive functioning resources specifically for elementary learners.
#11 Learning skills for executive functioning requires lots of practice.
For kids and teens who lack strong executive functioning skills like planning, organization, and time management, improving them can often be a great deal of work. It’s important to carve out time to focus on teaching them. Kids and teens already have a lot going on with academics from learning new math skills to writing history papers. By dedicating some amount of time to executive functioning skills, it can provide that extra practice for learners who need it the most.
#12 Executive functioning skills teach positive study habits.
Planning for a long-term project, reflecting on progress, and getting organized before an exam – these are all helpful study habits kids and teens can take with them throughout their lives. Simply put, teaching executive functioning skills also teaches study skills and habits.
Are you interesting in starting to teach executive functioning skills? Use some of these articles and resources to get started:
- Understanding Executive Functioning Skills
- Executive functioning resources for teens
- Executive functioning resources for elementary learners
- Games to Improve Executive Functioning Skills
- 15+ Executive Functioning Strategies Every Teacher Can Use
- 5 Daily Struggles for Kids with Executive Functioning Challenges