Understanding executive functioning skills is important for every educator. That’s because students use many executive functioning processes in the classroom every single day. When we understand these abilities, we can teach, target, and support them when we need to.
What are executive functioning skills?
Executive functioning skills are the processes in our brain that help us with our daily tasks and goals. In the simplest of terms, these are the abilities that help us get things done. When children and teens struggle with basic executive functioning skills, it can impact their performance in the classroom and beyond.
How can executive functioning skills be taught?
One of the most wonderful things about executive functioning skills is that we can teach them in so many different ways. One of the simplest strategies is to talk about them openly; ask questions and have the student share ideas. For example, you might ask, “What are your favorite ways to study for a test?” and “What are the steps it takes to organize your notebook?” Many times, students will have their own ideas and responses to share. And we all know that kids often learn best from other kids.
Another extremely helpful technique is integrating executive functioning skills into everyday content and curriculum. That means highlighting, discussing, and practicing EF skills on a regular basis. At the start of a new unit, brainstorm what you know about that topic together. Discuss that this is metacognition and self-checking because it is thinking about what you know, and what you don’t know. When assigning a long-term project, like a book report or research paper, stop to plan out a timeline for the activities together. Explain that this is planning and time management in action. Other skills like prioritizing, self-control, and attention play a huge role too.
For learners who need extra support and intervention, using a coaching model can be particularly helpful. This means sitting down 1:1 with a learner, helping them understand their strengths and challenges, and developing goals to work through.
Executive functioning lessons and activities:
Some good news for you is that I’ve created an entire set of lessons, activities, task cards, and more to teach these skills to your students.
Check out this yearlong set of executive functioning activities for learners. Use the lessons, workbooks, task cards, and activities to cover skills from planning to perseverance.
Here are 9 executive functioning processes children and teens use in the classroom every day:
Learning to organize is a critical skill that provides a sense of structure. Students use organization to keep materials tidy such as binders, folders, books, desks, and backpacks. Being organized also means bringing the right tools for the job (bringing a calculator to math). Strong organization skills help set the tone for success in every class.
To build organization skills:
- Give organization time at the beginning/end of class.
- Post what materials students will need at the front of the door.
- Practice organizing classroom materials together.
Being able to prioritize means identifying what needs to be done and listing those tasks in order of importance. One of the most simple examples of prioritizing is deciding which homework assignments to complete first during a working session.
Some ways to support skills for prioritizing are:
- Prioritize together during study halls and/or working sessions.
- Encourage students to write assignments down in a planner.
Time management is the skill that helps us to work efficiently and meet deadlines. Students use skills for managing time when they get to class on time, complete daily assignments, pace themselves to work at their best, and juggle multiple responsibilities.
To build time management skills:
- Encourage students to “check in” with themselves during work sessions to assess progress.
- Use chimes to warn a few minutes before transitions.
- Practice estimating time for tasks together.
Initiating tasks means getting started. This is the skill that helps us get going on a task or activity, even in times when we don’t want to in the moment. Students use task initiation skills when they start an independent activity in class, begin their homework, or clean up on their own.
To focus on task initiation skills:
- Give a countdown before starting a task.
- Provide explicit instructions in writing and orally before starting.
- Exercise before work.
- Have students repeat the directions for getting started back to you.
Using Working Memory
Working memory is a mental ability that helps us remember information in our brains for the short-term. Learners use working memory when they have to remember multi-step directions before starting a task or juggle numbers in their brain during math problems.
To help strengthen working memory skills:
- Practice mental math problems.
- Exercise before and during learning.
- Chunk information into smaller, and more manageable sections.
- Practice taking notes and writing down information.
Focusing our attention is being able to attend to one person or task for a period of time. This is an important skill students use when attending to class lectures, staying focused on a given assignment, and even listening during group conversations.
To build skills for attention and focus:
- Practice mindfulness (give mindful breathing a try).
- Use a chime to alert students to important information.
- Reduce distractions around the room.
- Exercise and incorporate movement often.
- Consider alternative seating options such as wobble stools or standing desks.
Self-checking is the ability to monitor our progress as we go. This is an important skill because it ensures a task is completed well. Students use self-checking when they ask themselves what they’ve learned while reading a chapter and when they ask themselves how they’re doing during a math test.
To build self-checking skills:
- Allow students to fix wrong answers on certain assessments.
- Encourage “check-ins” during working sessions (How am I doing?).
- Practice being reflective, such as a reflection after a quiz or at the end of the day.
- Model self-talk.
The ability to shift attention means to move focus from one thing to another. Students use this skill when they need to switch tasks, such as listening to the teacher give instructions when they’re already working on an assignment.
To build skills for shifting attention, try:
- Using a bell or chime to get student attention during a task.
- Give brain breaks proactively.