A number of kids struggle with executive functioning skills on a daily basis. Sometimes these struggles are obvious, like having a messy binder or forgetting to turn homework in, but other times they are more hidden. This is a critical topic because all educators have these kids in our classrooms every single day. Here are five daily struggles for kids with executive functioning challenges and what you can do to help:
STAYING ORGANIZED. To me, this is one of the biggest challenges I’ve seen after teaching middle school especially. In school, kids are expected to juggle and organize so many different papers, binders, journals, and books. So often, students don’t know the right place to put materials or organize in the first place. Other times, even when students do understand how to organize, there is often just not enough time. The bell rings and it’s time to transition to the next class, so what does the student do? Shove all their papers into the closest folder and heads out right away. Finally, for many kids, disorganization has been the only way they’ve ever known! Some of these kids don’t realize how much easier and orderly life would be if they just learned a few extra skills and tricks.
What you can do:
- Explicitly teach organization. Always spend time teaching organization. No matter the age, your learners are going to need to learn your system of organization. That takes time and practice! I developed an Organization Boot Camp specifically for kids and young adults who struggle and need a more in-depth set of activities to teach these skills.
- Set up a homework binder. Helping kids set up a specific spot for homework only can make a huge difference for organization. This should be the dedicated spot where all current homework goes. It helps kids differentiate what work needs to be done tonight and what work needs to be filed away in another spot. You can use this free homework binder template to start your students off.
- Give time to organize. I would say this is one of the easiest things you can do that is often forgotten about! When you ask students to change from one binder to another, give your struggling organizers sufficient time to do it. Moving on too fast only reinforces kids who shove papers away in a messy manner. These kids are going to take more time putting materials away in the right spot, and they deserve that time to do it.
- Use visuals. Take a picture of a model desk to show how it should be organized. Tape the photo on the wall or on a certain student’s desk to help remind them.
TRANSITIONS. Many kids with EF challenges struggle when it’s time to stop something and move on to something else. This task switching really takes a lot of brain power! You have to have self-control to stop what you are already engaged in, use organizational skills to put things away in their correct places, initiate the switch, and be mentally flexible to move on to something new. This can be especially difficult when adults are expecting a learner to transition to a new task or class within just a few minutes. While many students have have routines and strategies to help them during transition times, there is a large portion of kids who just never put those puzzle pieces together. This can often leave them even more disorganized, confused, and behind schedule.
What you can do:
- Create routines. Practice your transitions several times with students so they become second nature. Kids who are inflexible and struggle with changing from one activity to another will do considerably better when the transition is practiced and more comfortable.
- Give countdowns. Let students know how much time they have left to work on their research papers or during break time. This at least gives a concrete warning. For kids who struggle with time management, setting a backwards timer can be helpful, too.
- Use a chime. Using a calming sound like a chime when it’s time for transitions can help prime kids and young adults for the change. It will gain their attention and help serve as a memorable indicator that it’s time to change what we’re doing.
- Use visuals. Make a list of steps for transitions that are particularly difficult and keep them posted. This will serve as a visual reminder when it is time to move from one activity to another or switch classes.
- Use social scripts. Previewing the steps of a transition can be extremely helpful for kids. A social script is a short narrative a child or young adult can read to themselves prior to the transition to remind them of the expectations and plan. You can create your own or use these social scripts to help kids who need this extra support.
HOMEWORK. The whole idea of homework is that it should be extended practice kids and young adults can do independently. When a learner has a difficulty with executive functioning skills, that is often not the case at first. So often, kids with EF challenges don’t ever stop to write the homework down in class in the first place, or stop to make sure they have all their materials before they head home. This is the first thing that sets them back. Further, starting homework independently takes a good amount of task initiation skills mixed with self-control. For kids with already-weak inhibition skills, playing videogames, chatting with friends, or playing outside seems a lot more enticing than opening up a math book. Finally, when learners do finally start the homework, it can be challenging and, let’s be honest, boring. Sticking with it, or perseverance, is a skill that many students don’t always have on their own. If they come to a task that’s perceived as challenging, it’s often easier to abort the mission than to seek out solutions and work though.
What you can do:
- Be consistent. Keep homework written in the exact same spot in your classroom every day. Teach students that this is the one homework spot and keep it consistent throughout the year. This makes a huge difference for kids who struggle with EF skills, since it can become a lot of mental energy and work to figure out where the homework is before even starting the process of writing it down.
- Give prompts. Take time to prompt students to write homework down, especially the ones you know struggle to do it. Instead of just telling them to write it down, encourage them to think on their own by saying, “What should you be doing down right now?” or “Look around and notice what others are writing down.”
- Make an end of the day checklist. Help kids come up with a list detailing what they need when they walk out the door. This can help students review their homework planners, make sure they know what assignments to work on, and bring home the necessary materials. Use this free end of the day checklist to get started.
- Talk to families. Help set up more positive supports at home for kids who struggle with getting their work done. Talk to families about a dedicated workspace for homework and strategies for when the child gets stuck on assignments.
FOCUSING IN CLASS. Attention is a fascinating skill. It’s not something we just keep on permanently. Instead, it’s a skill we learn to focus and re-adjust constantly when we find ourselves starting to zone out. Kids with weak executive functioning often don’t know this secret, though. In a class, these are the students who are frequently looking out the window, playing with something in their desk, or just daydreaming to themselves. It’s not that they mean to not pay attention. It’s often that they don’t know how and when to refocus themselves in the right way. This becomes especially challenging in long classes with lots of lecture and talking. Of course, a child or young adult can also become extremely frustrated when they can’t focus, as it causes them to feel confused and not know what is going on. Sometimes, this can unfortunately snowball into a child who gives up easily and doesn’t try. Again, it’s not that they want to be unfocused, but they are severely lacking the skills to get there.
What you can do:
- Incorporate movement. Learning doesn’t have to be stationary! Kids learn better when they are moving. Have students working while standing up at the board during math time, or moving from center to center when completing writing prompt questions. If you have a specific student who needs even more movement, give them specific jobs to deliver messages to another teacher or the office just to get their legs moving throughout the day.
- Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is a great strategy to help kids improve their focus while also learning skills for managing emotions and feeling calm. You can use mindfulness activities just before a test, after a transition, or any other time to calm kids feel more focused and in control. Note that mindfulness is a long-term practice and not a quick fix, but can really help kids over time!
- Give time for brain breaks. Brain breaks are another great option to get kids moving. They are quick activities that help break up the learning and let the brain recharge for a short period of time. You can do anything from having kids do 10 jumping jacks to practicing a few yoga postures. These activities can be done anytime between transitions to help keep kids alert. I love these executive functioning games and play activities, mainly because they provide a fun brain break while still working on the skills kids need!
- Teach attention skills. Explicitly teach what it means to focus in class, what behaviors students can engage in to help them stay focused, and how to refocus when attention wanes.
SOCIAL INTERACTIONS. Sometimes when we think of executive functioning, we only think of academics. That’s actually not always the case! Kids and young adults who struggle with EF skills also can experience big challenges when it comes to social skills and dealing with others. Lots of social situations require us to understand social rules, use self-control, plan our responses, have flexibility when things don’t go our way, and use coping skills to manage our emotions when we are upset. For kids who lack these skills, social interactions can be especially difficult.
What you can do:
- Openly express social expectations. If you are having group work, make sure you go over what it means to be a good partners ahead of time. I love using visuals for this because they are something you can keep up to remind students, as needed. Just a simple list for what you do when you are playing games with others or a visual to show group work expectations can go a long way.
- Explicitly teach social skills. All kids can benefit from social skill instruction, though some need it more explicitly than others. You can use social skills lessons for younger students or social skills lessons for older kids to teach the skills they need. These lessons and activities can be taught in morning meeting, during a lunch group, or advisory periods.
- Use social scripts. Some students really benefit from previewing social expectations right before a situation occurs. You can have social scripts for before recess, lunch, group work, and other social times to help remind students what will happen and what they can do. You can develop your own or use these pre-made social scripts to help support students’ needs.
- Give opportunities for positive social interactions. Kids need practice in applying social skills! You can always integrate your content into games and group activities to give students this time with their peers. I also love these games and play activities for executive functioning skills as a way to specifically target the EF skills these kids need.
EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONING RESOURCES & IDEAS. If you are seeking more information about executive functioning skills and how you can support your learners, consider the following blog posts and resources:
- Executive Functioning Skills Explained
- Games to Improve Executive Functioning Skills
- Executive Functioning Strategies for the Classroom
- Using Task Cards to Teach Executive Functioning
Resources to Teach EF Skills:
- Executive Functioning Lessons for Older Kids
- Executive Functioning Interactive Notebook
- Executive Functioning Lessons for Little Learners