Executive functioning skills are the building blocks to success. These are the skills that help us plan, organize, prioritize, start tasks, manage our time, and work through challenges. Without a doubt, these are skills we all use every day, and that includes children and teens.
So you want to teach executive functioning skills to kids and teens, but aren’t sure exactly how to start? Below I’ve listed seven meaningful strategies to introduce and explain executive functioning skills to your learners. Use any (or all) of these simple strategies to start learning about these important skills.
1. Make Real-Life Connections with Executive Functioning Skills
Let students know you are going to help them learn about their brains. You might ask kids things like: Who here ever struggles with doing homework? Who has difficulty keeping an organized notebook? Have you ever started a project but you don’t know how to start? Have you gone to take a test but then realizes you studied the wrong information? What about making a choice and then realizing that wasn’t the best thing? These are all examples of executive functioning skills in our brains that help us do daily tasks.
2. Compare Executive Functioning to an Air Traffic Controller
Explain that executive functions are like an air traffic controller. Imagine a busy airport filled with planes coming and going. Airports need someone in charge to help the planes figure out when and where to land and take off. Something similar is happening in your brain throughout your busy day too.
In your brain, you’ve got parts of your brain that tell other parts to activate at certain times. Need to put papers away? Your brain needs to activate planning and organization. Need to start homework? Your brain has to activate self-control, organization, and task initiation. Playing a soccer game? Your brain needs attention, flexibility, and perseverance. These are just a few examples, but show how our brains rely on these skills to do lots of every day things. When we improve our brain’s ability to know when and how to activate these skills, we really can make our lives easier and better!
Note: If the idea of an air traffic controller is too complex or abstract for your kids, use the same idea with a manager. Executive functions are like a boss telling others what to do. Both of these explanations can help kids and teens understand the basis for executive functioning and the skills involved.
3. Color As You Talk About Executive Functioning Skills
Use coloring as a hands-on experience as you introduce each of the executive functioning skills from planning to perseverance. Use this free executive functioning poster and coloring page. You can start by reading the executive functioning skill and the definition. Have students color in the image. Then, ask students to consider when they might use that skill in their lives.
If you need a little bit more instruction, use these executive functioning coloring bookmarks. They include a new bookmark for several different executive functioning skills. My favorite part is that once students create the bookmark, they can use it throughout the week to remember that skill.
4. Make a KWL Chart on Executive Functioning Skills
Explain that executive functioning skills are the processes in our brain that help us accomplish our daily tasks. Provide a list of executive functioning skills for some added background knowledge, but stop there. Then, make a KWL chart together. Here, you will have students think about what they already know (K) on this topic. Students might share things like: I know that I use my brain to study. I know that organization means keeping my binders in order. I know you use time management when you are working on big projects.
Next, have students share what they want (W) to learn. Sometimes, it helps to ask kids to share what they think they WILL learn on the topic. Write these down as well.
Save the chart paper or document for later. If it’s written on a whiteboard, take a picture. Later on, once you’ve progressed in learning more, you can go back and add to the final column (L) to show what you’ve learned.
5. Assess Your Executive Functioning Skills Together
One strategy to get kids and teens to “buy in” to learning about executive functioning skills is helping them identify their strengths and challenges. An executive functioning self-assessment can help with just that. Have students rate themselves on a scale of 0-3 with each statement:
- I use a homework planner to record assignments (planning).
- My binder is well-organized and it is easy to find what I need (organization).
- I can start a task right away, even if it’s something I don’t want to do (task initiation).
- I stick with a problem or assignment until it’s finished, even when it’s hard (perseverance).
6. Play Games That Build Executive Functioning Skills
Introduce executive functioning skills to your students by engaging them with games and play activities. Here are some of my favorites to try:
Freeze. For this game, tell students they will be practicing their self-control skills. Explain that self-control is our ability to stop and think before acting. This helps us manage our behaviors. Play music and allow kids to dance and move their bodies freely. Once you pause the music, students will need to freeze in place. Once you play the music, kids can start dancing again.
Association. Let students know they are working on skills for organization and metacognition. Organization is having a system to keep things neat. Metacognition means thinking about what we already know. Start off with one word, like ‘peanut butter.’ The next person will think of any words that is associated, or related, to that word. For example, they might say ‘jelly’ or ‘sandwich.’ Then, the next person would say a word they associate with that word, and so on.
Learn more about games and play activities for executive functioning skills.
Once you’ve given one of these a try, share that they will be working on executive functioning skills to strengthen them over time.
7. Use Executive Functioning Discussion Starters
Conversation starters can be another helpful way to introduce executive functioning skills because kids learn from other kids in the room. Some beginning discussion starters to try:
- You have a lot of homework and you have practice at 6pm. What can you do?
- Do you prefer to work on the most challenging assignment or the easiest one first? Why?
- A teacher gives homework instructions out loud. How can you remember what you need to do?
- Choose any class. If you had a test in that class, what 3 pages in your notebook would you study from?
After discussing the questions, explain that all of these questions build on executive functioning skills. When we have stronger strategies for planning, organizing, and working through challenges, we can be at our best.
Keep in mind that there is no “one right way” to introduce executive functioning skills to your learners. What’s most important is to start the discussion and continue learning about these critical skills together.