Many kids and young adults struggle with executive functioning challenges. Some are easy to spot, such as when a student can’t focus on a lesson or comes to class without their entire binder. Other EF challenges are less obvious, though. A learner might take two times as long on homework because they don’t understand strategies to help them complete it quicker. Another student might look like they are paying attention, but may not be absorbing the content. For more of an in-depth explanation on these skills, be sure to check out my post on executive functioning skills explained.
Kids and young adults only have so much mental energy they can use at one time (we all do, right?). For kids who struggle with basic EF skills, like organization, planning, and time management, we want to reduce any wasted mental energy. This can help our learners focus on the more important things, including learning the content and practicing the skills.
Here are some simple steps that every educator can take to help all learners develop executive functioning success in the classroom:
#1 Develop, teach, and practice routines. Consistency is a huge key to student success. That’s true for all learners, but especially kids and young adults with EF deficits. Make everything a routine. Turning in homework each morning? Routine. Writing homework down at the end of class? Routine. Cleaning out notebooks for a new unit? Routine! It’s important to note that just coming up with a routine for these tasks isn’t really enough. The routines need to be practice and re-practiced throughout the year.
#2 Keep a daily schedule posted. Not only does a daily plan for the day keep educators on track, but it keeps students organized, too. A daily schedule or plan doesn’t need to be “perfect.” It’s okay if it is a rough outline of what you plan to do during the class. A daily schedule or plan keeps students more organized and gives a sneak
#3 Write homework in the same spot. Having a designated homework spot means kids and young adults use less mental energy figuring out where their assignment is listed each day. It’s a small step that can make a big difference.
#4 Embed executive functioning instruction in your content. One of the easiest ways to teach EF skills is by discussing them through your content and curriculum. For example, when working on a long-term project, you might talk about organization and time management. Before working on a challenging test, you might highlight strategies to help all learners use flexibility and perseverance. There are so many opportunities. Every teacher can and should be a teacher of executive functioning skills.
#5 Give organization time at the end of class. Kids and young adults with executive functioning challenges are notoriously disorganized. They can certainly learn skills to improve, but they need the time to get there. Dedicate the last few minutes of each class to tidying up, putting papers in the right spots, and making sure homework is written down. While not all kids will need this time, many really do.
#6 Teach skills explicitly. When kids struggle with math or reading, we teach them. The same should be true for skills like organization, self-control, and time management. You don’t need to be an executive function expert to talk about and teach these skills. I have developed a number of EF materials for educators, including executive functioning task cards and an executive functioning workbook. If you’re looking for
#7 Give mini-deadlines on long-term projects. Any educator knows that long-term projects can be a major challenge for some students. Mini-deadlines are a simple solution to the problem. If a report is due in two weeks, work to break up the project into sections. Make a date for students to find their sources, create an outline, and write
#8 Reduce distractions. It’s important to note that reducing distractions will look different in every classroom. Still, it’s important to be reflective. Art projects hanging from the ceiling might look beautiful, but they may actually be doing more harm than good if they are distracting your learners. Take time to re-assess the visuals and materials in your classroom and reduce any distractions that might be about.
#9 Give time checks. Kids and young adults who struggle with time management often don’t have a strong understanding of time itself. During working sessions, use a chime or just your voice to give time checks for how much longer is left. For example, you might say, “This is a time check. You have about 10 more minutes before we need to clean up the lab stations.” This simple no-prep support is helpful to all kids, but especially to kids with EF challenges.
#10 Keep extra papers stored in a bin. Of course, we want all students to stay organized and keep all of their papers where they need to be. However, kids with EF challenges are likely to lose papers. Give them
#11 Explicitly state when important information is being shared. It would be great if every student perfectly paid attention during all lectures and lessons, but we all know that’s not exactly the case. With this, it’s critical to be very explicit when sharing information that matters the most. You might say, “I’m about to say something really important. Pencils down and eyes on me,” as a cue.
#12 Give breaks. No one can be 100% all of the time. This is especially true for our learners with executive functioning challenges. Their brains are working extra hard to pay attention, stay organized, manage their time, problem-solve, and work through challenges. It’s important to give brain breaks during
#13 Preview changes. For kids and young adults who struggle with flexibility, change can be a huge obstacle. If there is a change of schedule coming up, give students a heads up. Explain what the change is and how the day will proceed. This doesn’t need to take much
#14 Stock a classroom office. For some kids,
#15 Let kids work through challenges. Kids and young adults need the experiences of doing tasks on their own, whether it is struggling through a math problem or learning how to cut out a craft. It’s okay if things aren’t perfect. It’s much more important that kids and young adults develop the confidence that they can do things independently. This also allows for problem-solving, flexibility, and perseverance. Sometimes, they will need help, and it’s important to give that support! But it’s also okay to let them learn through their struggles so they can persevere and succeed.
#16 Play executive functioning skills games during downtime. Sometimes, it is difficult to integrate EF skills into the day with all the content and curriculum that needs to be covered. This is when downtime can be extremely valuable. Use the last few minutes of class to play fun games that actually strengthen EF skills, like Simon Says and Freeze. Some games, like Guard Duty, can even be played while your students are in line on the way to another class. The idea is to have them act
#17 Allow for movement in the classroom. Many kids and young adults learn best when they are moving. This can be especially true for kids who struggle with attention and focus. Use center work, stations, and even movement games to allow for extra movement throughout the day while kids are learning the content you need them to.
#18 Be concise. Say what matters the most and keep it short! Kids and young adults who struggle with attention and focus will get lost when directions or information is too wordy. It may also help to have both visual and verbal reminds for the directions for those who need.
If you are interested in teaching executive functioning skills explicitly, I have developed an entire yearlong set of activities for executive functioning skills. It includes everything from workbooks to lessons and crafts to task cards. It is ideal for advisory or the resource room, but I’ve even had general education teachers use it in the first few minutes of class to help teach the skills kids need most.
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