What are executive functioning skills and how can I support struggling learners? These are questions that many educators and parents have, and for good reason. Executive functioning skills are the processes in our brains that help us accomplish daily tasks. They include our abilities to organize materials, prioritize work, stay focused during activities, and persevere through challenges. It goes without saying that these skills are important. Without even thinking about it, we use these skills numerous times every day. Just by reading this article alone, you are using your abilities for attention, metacognition, and working memory.
When these skills are easy for us, we often don’t even think about using them. That’s a good thing – you have trained your brain to engage in the skills you need to when you need them. Let’s consider an example. When you have a chore to do, you probably talk yourself into get started (task initiation), stay focused while ignoring distractions (attention), and work through until you are finished (perseverance).
As individuals, we each have our own unique set of executive functioning strengths and challenges. Because of this, executive functioning challenges can impact different people in different ways. Some behaviors can obvious, but they can also be subtle. When looking for EF challenges, it’s most helpful to look for patterns of behavior over time.
Kids and teens who struggle with executive functioning skills might:
- Have difficulty starting or finishing tasks.
- Frequently lose or misplace materials.
- Have trouble getting or staying organized.
- Forget directions or steps of a task.
- Have difficulty focusing on a task, or switching from one task to another.
- Act in impulsive ways (acting without thinking through a situation).
- Rush to finish work at the last minute.
- Have difficulty managing time well.
- Become frustrated with schedule changes.
Further, the level of challenge can be a huge spectrum as well. Some learners might become frustrated when the schedule changes, but they are able to cope, while others can’t go on with their normal day. Understanding your individual students and their needs becomes extremely important in this case, as some students might need minor accommodations, while others need immediate interventions.
Feel like you’d like to learn more about executive functioning skills before jumping into strategies? I’ve got you covered. Check out this article all about understanding executive functioning skills.
The good news is that many of the same strategies to support struggling learners can also be helpful for all kids and teens. So, if you work with a child or teenager struggling with some of these areas, it is worth the time to test out a few strategies to see what works.
Resources to Teach Executive Functioning
Before we delve into all the strategies and supports, it’s worth mentioning that I have created a full yearlong set of executive functioning lessons and activities. Check out the video if you’re interested in giving them a try!
Here are some strategies and supports to help kids and teens struggling with executive functioning skills:
Build a Strong Relationship
Relationships matter. Struggling learners need to know that they have trusted and supportive adults on their side. While this is always true, this is especially true for kids with executive functioning deficits. Simply put, school and academics are going to be more challenging for these learners. Build relationships to help learners feel safe, respected, and valued. Once this foundation is there, the true learning can happen.
Routines help create predictable and organized daily activities. This lowers stress, improves focus, and increases productivity. When tasks are second nature for kids and teens, they can use the rest of their brain power for other more challenging tasks. The key with routines is to practice them again and again. Even after routines are mastered, it can be helpful to revisit them and practice again just to keep them strong.
Some helpful routines at home might include waking up in the morning, when to start homework, cleaning up the bedroom on Friday night, and getting ready for bed.
At school, it might be helpful to have routines for coming into the classroom, transitioning from one task to another, writing homework down, and getting ready to head home.
Start the Day Calm
For many kids and teens with executive functioning challenges, the day can be hectic. Starting the day with a calm activity can help set the stage for success, though. Use some of the strategies below, or read more about helpful executive functioning activities for the morning.
- Read positive affirmations.
- Write out the schedule for the day.
- Give journal-writing time.
- Ask a question of the day.
- Do an emotions check-in.
- Listen to calming music.
- Practice mindful breathing.
Planners and calendars are critical tools for organization. Adults can model organization by using calendars and planners on a regular basis. Use them to list out important dates and upcoming activities.
More importantly, though, kids and teens can be taught to use planners too. Help students set up a homework planner (or homework log). This should be a dedicated space to write down homework, upcoming assessments, and critical information to remember. Make it a routine (see above) to write down homework in planners every single day. Even if there is no homework, encourage kids to write down “no homework,” so they are always in the habit of using their planners. Grab this free homework binder tool to get started.
As humans, we all need movement breaks. This is especially true for kids and teens with executive functioning challenges. Research shows that regular exercise and movement improves memory and thinking skills. If we want kids to learn, we need to let them move. Some strategies for adding movement into the day include:
- Exercising while learning (such as doing jumping jacks while reciting math facts).
- Use centers during working sessions to encourage kids to move around as they work.
- Use brain breaks between tasks.
- Start the morning with a daily exercise routine.
- Take a walk to work in another location (such as the library).
- Use flexible seating when possible.
- Encourage movement during lessons (such as standing up to answer questions).
Checklists are one of the most simple supports that have big impacts. They can break down tasks, help provide structure, and give an end goal in sight. Model using checklists and teach students to make their own. Checklists can be used for everyday tasks such as organizing your desk, but they can also be used for larger tasks such as long-term projects.
Give Clear and Concise Instructions
Be simple, clear, and to-the-point when giving instructions. Too much auditory input can be overwhelming for kids who struggle with executive functioning skills. To avoid being too wordy, stop and think about exactly what you want the students to do. Give this instruction and repeat them.
Next, have students explain the directions back to you. This is for two purposes: it shows that the student does in fact understand, but it also gives another chance for other learners to hear the directions straight from another student.
Teach About Executive Functioning Skills
It’s empowering for kids and teens to understand about how their brains work. There are several different strategies and techniques for teaching about executive functioning. Choose one (or two) that fit best for your learners.
Integrate the skills into what you already teach. For example, if you are about to take a quiz, take a few minutes to discuss using your time well (time management).
Use conversations and discussion starters. Use a question of the day such as, “What does it mean to prioritize?” and “Describe a famous person who showed perseverance in their life.” Consider trying executive functioning task cards for conversations, journal writing, and more.
Use literature to highlight skills. Since executive functioning skills are in fact life skills, it’s easy to integrate them into whatever texts or short stories you read. You might ask questions like, “How did the main character persevere through challenges?” and “When was a time they showed self-control?”
Teach EF skills explicitly. Taking the time to teach executive functioning skills is an investment. I created this digital executive functioning workbook with interactive slides and activities for executive functioning skills.
Give Think Time
Some silence and quiet time can be a good thing! Kids and teens need time to process information. Everyone processes at a difference pace, but we all need time. After asking a question, give “think time” without calling on anyone for a minute or so.
If you are aware of a schedule change coming up, make it a point to preview that change with your learners. Kids and teens who struggle with EF skills may not have strong flexibility skills to manage the schedule change on their own in the moment. Giving a heads up can help them cope. For example, if art is going to be shortened due to an upcoming an assembly, discuss and explain why.
Explain Your Reasoning
So often, we direct kids and teens to do something but we don’t think of explaining the why. Many kids might be able to infer the reasoning, but for some learners with executive functioning challenges, it is not that easy. Take time to explain why you are assigning a project or asking students to complete a task a certain way. When they understand the why, it is sometimes easier to remember and complete the task in the first place.
A lot of the trouble with executive functioning is knowing which skills to use when. This is where problem-solving practice can pay off. Come up with scenarios and discuss them together. For example, you might say, “You have a lot of homework and you have practice at 6:00pm tonight. What can you do?” It’s important to let the kids and teens do the work! Let them problem-solve and discuss together. Giving input is always great, but the real learning is going to be when they are problem-solving on their own.
I developed these executive functioning task cards to give extra problem-solving and discussion practice on all 10 executive functioning skills from planning to perseverance.
Draw kids and teens into the learning by incorporating their interests. There are an unlimited number of ways to approach this. If you are learning about fractions, use a child’s favorite food or sport. If you are practicing reading comprehension strategies, pick a story that you know will interest your student.
Thinking aloud about what we are doing and why is another simple and effective executive functioning technique. For example, an adult writing an important date down on the board might say, “I’m writing this date down on the board to help me remember it. As I write it, it helps my brain think about the date. Later on, when I look up at the board, I’ll also remember this date.” If time allows, feel free to turn this think aloud into a discussion. To add, you might say, “What are some ways you remember important dates?”
Embrace a Growth Mindset
Sometimes struggling learners feel “stuck.” For example, you might have heard your student say, “I’m just bad at math.” This is called a fixed mindset. Instead, it’s important to teach children to adopt a growth mindset, meaning they believe they can grow their skills with effort and perseverance. Read more about ways to promote a growth mindset for kids and teens.
To get started right away, try these free growth mindset task cards. They include some conversation starters and situations to practice embracing a growth mindset.
Visuals are a non-verbal strategy to provide reminders and support. These can be used to give reminders about directions, the schedule for the day, and expectations. Whenever you find you are repeating yourself verbally, consider adding a simple visual for extra support.
Teach Study Skills and Habits
Study skills and habits should be taught and practiced on a regular basis. Skills that seem simple and obvious to some can be a mystery to kids with executive functioning challenges. Some skills and habits to go over include:
- How to keep binders organized.
- Creating a dedicated homework and study space.
- Planning for long-term assignments.
- How to take notes during lectures and while reading.
- Reflecting on work.
- Checking in during work.
- Strategies for staying focused in class.
Use this free printable study skills checklist to discuss some of these skills with your learners.
All kids and teens need confidence-boosters, but this is even more true for kids and teens with executive functioning deficits. So often, these kids are smart, creative, funny, and talented. Unfortunately, sometimes those positive qualities are overshadowed by the daily challenges EF deficits can bring. This is why building confidence is so critical.
One of my favorite activities is making a compliment list. Have students write out a list of compliments to themselves. For example, they might write, “I am athletic and have a passion for playing sports.” For some learners, this activity can be very difficult. If so, encourage them to write about what a friend would say about them.
Another simple technique is to teach and practice positive self-talk. These are statements like, “I can do this,” and “Today will be a great day.” Not only do these statements build confidence, they also help create a positive mindset. Use this positive affirmations list to give it a try.
Read here for more confidence-boosting activities.
Practice Coping Skills
Kids and teens who struggle with executive functioning challenges may struggle with managing emotions too. Not only can tasks be more frustrating for them, but many don’t have the skills to effectively cope with that frustration. This is why practicing coping skills can be so important. Essentially, kids and teens need to have enough practice with coping skills so that they can use them later on. In other words, it’s important to make time for calming activities like deep breathing, journal writing, and using positive self-talk. Many of these coping skills can be practiced as a brain break or an end-of-the-day routine.
Start with this free coping skills list to select a few coping strategies. Try them out together, discuss when you might use them, and choose favorites for the future.
Need more strategies and resources to teach executive functioning skills? Check out these executive functioning resources for older learners or executive functioning activities for elementary kids.
Do you have other executive functioning strategies and techniques that work for you? Share below!