What are executive functioning skills?
Executive functioning (EF) skills are the abilities in our brain that help us complete everyday tasks. These skills include planning, organization, time management, metacognition, working memory, self-control, attention, flexibility, and perseverance. Sometimes, it’s helpful to think of executive functions like an air traffic controller in our brains. The EF center is assigning tasks to each of the different skills. For example, it tells us to focus and really listen while someone is talking (attention), while reminding us to get started when we have an assignment due at the end of class (task initiation). All of these skills work together to make sure we are working efficiently and effectively while completing daily tasks.
What do each of the EF skills mean?
Each skill plays an important role in helping to accomplish both daily responsibilities and long-term goals. While reading up on the different executive functioning skills and their jobs, it’s important to note that they often work together in different ways.
- Planning is developing a well-thought-out strategy before starting a task. This involves thinking about what is needed before beginning something and creating a list of steps to help accomplish that goal in an effective way. Strong planning skills can help learners best use their time and complete tasks well, without needing to go back and revise work after the fact.
- Organization is using strategies to stay neat and tidy. Being organized includes having a place for everything, developing a plan to keep materials orderly, and cleaning up we go. Learners with strong organization skills are better able to find what they need when they need it.
- Task initiation means starting right away. That includes not procrastinating, even when it is a less-desired task (like starting homework or doing dishes). Skills with task initiation are critical because they are one of the initial steps in actually getting up and starting a job.
- Time management is using time well to complete tasks. This helps us estimate how long tasks will take, prioritize tasks, and use time wisely. With strong time management skills, learners are better able to do their best and most focused work on jobs while also completing assignments on time.
- Attention allows us to focus on a person or task for a period of time, ignore distractors, and refocus when needed. Strong attention skills can help to make sure learners hear and understand instructions, focus well during conversations, and concentrate on longer tasks.
- Metacognition is thinking about our thinking. That means considering what we know and what we don’t know about a topic as we learn. This can be a critical skill when studying for assessments, completing challenging assignments, and even just comprehending new learning material.
- Working memory is keeping information in our heads while we use it. We use working memory when we solve complex math problems and juggle numbers in our head. We also use working memory when remembering critical details in a story or just thinking back to what the directions given in class were.
- Self-control is stopping and thinking in order to make a more positive choice in the moment. That involves learning how to “hit the pause button,” calm down when emotions run high, think through a situation, and make a good choice for now and the future. Learners use self-control in the moment, such as raising their hand before asking a question in class, and in the long-term, such as choosing to stay home to finish an assignment instead of going out with friends.
- Flexibility is effectively coping with change. This means being open-minded, testing out new approaches, and going with the flow when things do not go as planned. Being a flexible thinker also means being able to see a situation in more than one way, which is critical for problem-solving and perspective-taking.
- Perseverance is working through challenges and roadblocks that come up along the way. This means being able to try new strategies, continue working when a task is difficult, and even asking for help, when needed. Strong perseverance skills are necessary for success in all areas of life, as challenges are bound to come up here and there.
Why is it important to target executive functioning skills?
Executive functioning skills are in everything that we do. We use them when we plan out a long-term project, when we organize our materials, and when we use self-control to not call out when someone else is speaking. These skills are the foundation for success in and outside of school.
Can executive functioning skills be improved?
Yes! By explicitly teaching and practicing EF skills, we ensure that all learners have the strong foundation they need to be successful in and outside of the classroom. The idea is that we can train our brains to improve basic skills like organization and self-control.
Kids and young adults can also learn valuable compensatory strategies to help them through their struggles with staying organized, paying attention, and persevering through challenges. Not only does this give learners immediate short-term benefits, but gives support in the long-term as well. Below are some simple, but effective, strategies in teaching and practicing executive functioning skills.
Embed skills in the curriculum. Spend time teaching executive functioning skills through your current content and curriculum. For example, teach students how to plan when a research paper is assigned. Spend a few minutes giving organization tips when clearing out an old notebook. Discuss strategies for memorizing words when learning new vocabulary. Embedding EF skills into what you are already doing can be a highly effective strategy for success.
Problem-solve through scenarios. Teach learners how to overcome challenges by working through scenarios with them. Ask your students, “If you are headed to class and realize you don’t have a pencil. What can you do?” and “Imagine you are taking a test, but you just can’t focus. What might you try to help yourself?” Come up with your own or use these executive functioning task cards to get started. Working through these situations when they are not stressful is a huge key. This problem-solving practice can build new strategies, skills, and confidence.
Use games and play activities. Use break times to play fun educational games that can build executive functioning skills. For example, play Jenga at the end of the week as a reward to focus on practicing planning and self-control. Use brainteasers in the morning as a warm-up to practice flexibility and perseverance. The options are endless, and kids will have fun while learning.
Teach skills explicitly. When learners have significant executive functioning weaknesses, it’s important to teach the skills in an explicit way. That means explaining the skill, discussing the reasons for learning it, and giving students practice. Use this yearlong executive functioning set to get started with your older learners (or try this EF set if you work with younger students).
Which skills should I focus on first?
It’s important to note again that all EF skills work together. For example, learners will be better planners if they stay organized and can manage their time well. With that said, each person has individual executive functioning strengths and weaknesses. That means some learners might struggle with staying organized, while others need extra support practicing self-control.
A great way to know which skills to work on is to use the free executive functioning self-assessment. Join Pathway 2 Success to grab your free copy!
As a Pathway 2 Success member, you will get updates on blog posts and access to exclusive free resources in the member library, like the Executive Functioning Student Self-Assessment (and you will get a printable poster of the strategies visual posted above, too!). Just enter your email address below to join as a Pathway 2 Success member!
Where can I learn more about executive functioning skills?
It’s clear to say that EF skills are a huge topic. Read up on more executive functioning skills with the blog posts below:
- Executive Functioning Skills Explained
- Games to Improve Executive Functioning Skills
- 15+ Executive Functioning Strategies Teachers Can Use
- 5 Daily Struggles for Kids with Executive Functioning Challenges
- Interventions for Attention Challenges
- Interventions for Organization Challenges
- Practicing EF skills with Play Activities
- Using Task Cards to Teach Executive Functioning
How can I get started?
Executive functioning skills are important. Whether you work with elementary, middle, or high school learners, there are resources that you can use to get started right away.
- Executive functioning for elementary learners
- Executive functioning for middle and high school learners