Executive functioning skills are in everything we do. Kids and teens use them when starting homework, working with partners, juggling daily responsibilities, staying focused in class, problem-solving with friends, and much more. Executive functioning skills are life skills.
While it’s important to teach the ten core executive functioning skills explicitly, it’s also worthwhile expanding and teaching some of the sub-skills along the way. These skills include learning how to activate your brain before you learn a new topic, meeting deadlines, and using strategies to stay calm in times of stress. This is why I developed the ABCs of executive functioning skills. It’s just another technique to integrate, teach, and practice these skills that matter so much.
If you love these ideas, use this Executive Functioning Skills from A-Z Workbook, filled with meaningful activities and mini-lessons to teach about each of these skills and more. It was originally designed as a digital and interactive workbook, but also comes with printable workbook pages too. See more in the preview below or grab it here for yourself!
You can also grab the free printable ABCs of Executive Functioning Poster. I love posters as teaching tools because kids can color the black/white version while you discuss each skill.
Here are the ABCs of Executive Functioning:
Activating Your Brain. When learning new information, it’s important to know how to turn your brain on. This means engaging in the learning process before the learning actually starts. Teach kids and teens to activate their brains with exercising, eating well, and staying hydrated. Another technique to try out is thinking about background knowledge on a subject before learning. For example, before learning about outer space in science, list out everything you know on that topic.
Being Self-Aware. Self-awareness means understanding our strengths, challenges, and needs. Help kids and teens improve their self-awareness skills by discussing executive functioning skills and allowing them to identify areas of strength and weakness. Start learning about these skills with a free executive functioning workbook.
Choices. In order to improve executive functioning skills, it’s important to teach that we have choices for every action we make. Writing down homework is a choice. Studying for a test is a choice. Even raising our hand to ask a question in class when we don’t understand something is a choice. Teaching this skill to kids and teens can help empower them.
Developing a Plan. Learning to plan is essential for success academically and socially. Teach kids and teens how to plan with the acronym CLUE. It stands for consider what you need, list out the steps, understand possible problems, and estimate the time. These four steps can help learners understand what it means to plan before starting a task.
Evaluating Priorities. Part of planning, task initiation, and time management skills involve understanding priorities. Our priorities are the tasks that are most important to us in a given moment. Practice this skill with kids and teens by giving a list of tasks and having them put them in order from for how soon they should be accomplished. For example, have students consider the following list: math homework that is due tomorrow, hanging out with a friend, studying for a spelling test on Friday, and a history project due next week. Have learners discuss the list, think about what is most important to start first, and how they might prioritize their time.
Flexible Thinking. Flexible thinking is being able to shift your thinking to understand a situation in a new way. Practice this with social scenarios and encourage kids to think of multiple ways to solve the problem. Try these free social problem-solving cards to start.
Goal-Setting. Developing SMART goals helps learners understand that their aspirations are achievable. Conference with students individually to help them identify something they want to improve, and make a plan to get there.
Habits for Success. Encourage kids and teens to reflect on their own personal habits for success. Do they write homework down every day at school? Start homework right away when they get home? Make a plan for long-term assignments? Stay organized? Get to bed at a reasonable time? These small actions turn into habits that impact our everyday success.
Initiating Tasks. Being able to start tasks is an important skill. Sometimes learners who struggle with task initiation skills are incorrectly labeled as lazy or unmotivated. Teach strategies for getting started such as making a list, planning a reward, and using a timer. You can even have some fun with this one by pretending you are a rocket ship that is about to blast off. Count down and jump up at the end.
Juggling Responsibilities. Kids and teens today are often busy. Between homework, friends, sports, and other activities, learners often have a lot on their plates. Discuss these responsibilities and strategies for juggling them in a manageable way.
Keeping Focus. Paying attention is a process. That’s because we don’t just focus at 100% all of the time. It’s important to teach kids and teens how to focus and adjust that focus. Consider some of these techniques and interventions for teaching attention skills.
Listening. Learning to be an active listener is a skill. Model, practice and discuss what it means to be actively listening in class and why it matters.
Meeting Deadlines. Kids and young adults are given deadlines for assignments every day, whether it is a one-night homework assignment or a long-term project. It’s important to teach how to meet those deadlines. Some practice for this involves learning how to review the directions, determining the due date, listing out the tasks required, and giving mini-deadlines. This can be practiced for every long-term assignment given in class.
Navigating Problems. Problem-solving is at the heart of executive functioning skills. If we want kids and teens to be independent, they need to know how to work through challenges on their own. Learn how to teach problem-solving skills with a free activity.
Organization. Learning to get organized is one of the biggest struggles for kids and teens in school. Introduce the idea of what organization means with this free organization activity. Students will cut out items and place them in the correct spots around the room. What is fun about this activity is that not everyone’s room will be organized exactly the same and that’s okay! It can help kids and teens start to talk about what it means to be organized and why it is important.
Perseverance. We are all faced with challenges and roadblocks. Perseverance is the ability to overcome those obstacles until we complete a goal. Some techniques for building perseverance include setting goals, using positive self-talk, completing puzzles, and developing strategies for working through challenges along the way.
Questioning to Check In. Learners need to know that it is important to check-in with themselves to notice how they are doing. This is really metacognition in action. To add to this, it’s helpful for kids to see how they use this skill in all areas of the school day.
Resilience. Part of life is coping with experiences when they don’t go quite the way we planned them to. That is resilience. Teach resilience skills through literature, brainteasers, positive self-talk, and self-compassion.
Self-Control. Self-control is the ability to stop and think before acting. Often, this involves thinking through a situation to make a good choice. Of course, this can be a challenging skill for kids with growing minds. Practice with real-life scenarios by asking, “What would you do?” and discussing. Other strategies to improving self-control include learning how to “hit the pause button” and slow down using coping strategies like deep breathing and self-talk.
Time Management. Many kids and teens struggle with time management skills. One simple way to practice is by estimating time for tasks before starting. For example, before beginning a worksheet, ask kids to consider how long they think it will take to complete it. During the work, encourage students to check-in with themselves. Finally, once the assignment is complete, learners can identify how close their estimate was. This is just one small way to build on these skills over time.
Using Self-Talk. Positive self-talk is an important component in improving executive functioning skills. That’s because so often, these skills are challenging for kids and teens to learn. If we want them to improve, we need to teach them to use their words in a positive way to encourage themselves along the way. Use this free printable positive affirmations list to help kids develop that positive voice.
Varying Approaches. Varying approaches means being flexible and trying new strategies when one doesn’t work. This is an especially important technique for working through challenging assignments (like math problems). Besides academics, though, this is also an important skill when problem-solving through social situations too.
Working Memory. Our working memory skills include the ability to hold information in our brains while we use that information. Practice working memory by giving mental math problems or asking kids to remember three pieces of information over a short period of time. One of my favorite ways to build these skills is to learn how to develop mnemonics for remembering lists.
eXtra Help. Recognizing that you need extra help is a strength, not a weakness. Teach kids and teens how to ask for help in different ways, such as staying after for extra support, talking to an adult, or studying with a friend.
Yet (Growth Mindset). The power of yet is all about growth mindset. When there is something you feel you can’t do, just add “yet” to the end. For example, “I can’t solve this problem yet.” Learn more about other techniques for teaching a growth mindset.
Zen (Staying Calm). Calming strategies are essential to thinking clearly in times of stress. Practice coping strategies like listening to music, exercising, and positive self-talk to build these strategies for the future. Try some of these coping skills activities to manage stress and tough emotions.