Executive functioning skills are getting a lot of attention right now in education. Honestly, it’s not even the amount of attention that they deserve, though. Executive functions are essentially the building blocks for completing all tasks in life (in school and beyond).
If you think of executive functioning, you might just think of a student who has organizational issues: his binder is a mess, he can’t find papers he needs, and forgets homework at home. It’s true that organization is one executive functioning skill, but there are actually many more. Neuropsychologists and educational researchers continue to try and identify the specific executive functioning skills in separate categories so that they can be better understood. In turn, this allows us to teach these skills to young adults while setting up strategies for success in our classrooms. The main executive functioning skills include: planning, organization, time management, task initiation, working memory, metacognition, self-control, sustained attention, flexibility, and perseverance.
What’s even more interesting is how all the skills actually work together to complete tasks. You almost never use an executive functioning skill in isolation. Instead, the skills are woven together to allow tasks to be completed in a complete and coherent way. For example, when you go grocery shopping, you have to plan out which stores you’ll go to and organize with coupons or a sales flyer. Then, you will finally set out for the store (task initiation). You have to think about what items you already have and what you will need (metacognition). You have to use time management to get there at a time that works for you and gives you enough time to shop. While shopping, you will probably use your working memory to figure out prices and best deals, while also using self-control to avoid indulging in foods on the no-list. You may even have to adapt your list when the store doesn’t have a certain item you expected (flexibility). You will most likely keep focused while shopping, so you can get home on time (attention). Finally, even if you are tired of shopping and the lines are horrendously long, you will stick to the task to finish and get the groceries home (perseverance). That is just one small task of how executive functioning skills are used in an everyday life experience.
Now, imagine what it is like for kids and young adults juggling all of these mental skills while: learning new math skills, writing a research paper, getting to classes on time, completing homework assignments, working in small groups, completing science labs, participating in gym class sports, and so much more.
Here is a short summary of each of the executive functioning skills:
- Planning is the ability to put together a strategy for attaining a goal. It includes analyzing what you need and what steps you should take to complete task.
- Organization is the ability to develop and maintain a system to keep materials and plans orderly. That includes a system for homework, keeping track of assignments/papers, and being organized at home, too.
- Time Management means having an accurate understanding of how long it will take to complete tasks and being able to use time effectively to actually finish those tasks on schedule.
- Task Initiation is the ability to independently start tasks when needed. It means being able to start something even when you really don’t want to.
- Working Memory is the mental process that allows us to hold information in our minds while we are working with it. Examples include computing math problems mentally and remembering information for short periods of time during research or note-taking.
- Metacognition means knowing what you know and what you don’t know. It’s a critical skill for assessing your progress on tasks and changing your methods as you go. Metacognition is also the skill that allows you to stop yourself when you are stuck before going ahead too far.
- Self-control is the ability regulate yourself, including your thoughts, actions, and emotions. This means being able to manage your anger and wait your turn to share. Not only is this skill critical for academic success, but social success, too.
- Sustained Attention is being able to focus on a person or task for a period of time. It includes being able to avoid distractions and shifting your focus when needed.
- Flexibility means being able to adapt to new situations and dealing with change. Changes that cause difficulty might include a schedule change or when a plan doesn’t come together for a project.
- Perseverance is sticking to a task and not giving up, even when it becomes challenging. Further, it’s being able to use strategies to get through a task, regardless of the roadblocks that pop up along the way.
Any educator can help to teach and support these critical skills, whether a special education teacher, classroom teacher, school counselor, psychologist, or paraprofessional. Parents can benefit from learning about these skills too, especially when it comes to helping manage homework and projects at home. If you’re getting started and are looking for some basic materials, consider my Executive Functioning Lessons and Activities. The ultimate goal is to teach and foster stronger executive functioning skills, so that kids and young adults can do more independently.
If you are looking for the next step up, consider the Executive Functioning Advanced Workbook. It has over 100 student workbook pages that teach and provide practice around the same skills. Best of all, there is no prep for the teacher.
If you’re interested, here are some other executive functioning topics I’ve written about:
- Executive functioning strategies for the classroom
- Using games to strengthen executive functioning skills
- Practicing executive functioning skills with play activities
If you want a reminder about these skills, be sure to grab this FREE Executive Functioning Poster!