If we want learners to develop strong executive functioning skills, it is critical to integrate them into the daily classroom. Integrating executive functioning skills into classroom instruction just makes sense. In short, this means taking important skills like organization, planning, and self-control, and practicing them right alongside average daily tasks.
At first it might seem overwhelming to teach executive functioning skills. It’s important to note that every educator is already a teacher of executive functioning skills. These are skills educators and students use every day (in fact, all people use them every day). Some ways students use them include:
- Students organize their desks and binders.
- They pay attention during conversations and class lessons.
- Students initiate tasks when starting work.
- They persevere through difficult tasks and assignments.
- Students use self-control to make positive choices.
This is why integrating this instruction into the day makes so much sense. Kids and teens are already using these skills, so let’s teach and support them along the way.
Of course, integrating EF skills is great, but I’m also a huge advocate for teaching these skills explicitly too (you can feel free to read my 12 reasons why). If you want to skip straight to teaching these critical skills explicitly, I’ve got you covered. One great way to start is using this executive functioning workbook. It’s one of my favorites because it’s no prep – just read and learn together. If you want more ideas for integrating in other ways, though, keep reading!
Below I’ve listed some examples for ways to integrate executive functioning skills into the regular classroom instruction. Some of these techniques educators might already do in the classroom. Of course, that’s great! Moving forward, though, it’s even more helpful to be explicit about what you are teaching, why it matters, and how students can use these skills in the future. Name the executive functioning skills kids and using and spending time discussing how it can help them.
It’s also worth mentioning that integrating executive functioning skills isn’t a one-time activity. These tasks can be done again and again. They might need to be reviewed and re-practiced. The good news is that all learners benefit from learning and practicing executive functioning skills. In fact, teaching executive functioning skills too much is almost enough. The goal is that kids and teens learn these skills so well that they no longer need adults reminding them to organize their binder, write down their homework, or make a list of what they need to study.
Here are 25+ strategies for integrating executive functioning skills into the classroom:
Explain how executive functioning skills are used in the classroom.
Kids and teens need to know they are already using executive functioning skills every day in class. In math, we use working memory to solve problems in our head and we use flexibility to try a new way when one strategy isn’t working. In reading, we use perseverance to figure out a word we don’t know and megacognition to think about what we’re reading. These are just a few quick examples to begin the conversation. Grab these free printable and digital executive functioning posters to start.
Use think alouds.
A think aloud is the process of actually saying the words out loud that you are thinking. This seems like such a simple task, but it has big impacts! Many times, kids and teens with executive functioning challenges don’t understand why we do certain things. Think alouds can change that. For example, you might say, “I am writing the due date of the upcoming project up on the board right now. This will help all of us remember that it’s coming up. You might want to write it down in your planner, too.” Again, this can be done with literally any task.
Teach and practice study strategies before a quiz.
It only makes sense to discuss study strategies prior to a test or quiz. Of course, this benefits kids by giving them concrete ways to prepare for the upcoming assessment, but it also helps build a toolbox of study skills for a later time. Different assessments might mean different study strategies. For example, before a math test on fractions, students might want to look back on older homework assignments and re-do past examples. Spend time practicing a few in class before sending kids home to study on their own. Read these tips for teaching study skills for more ideas.
Highlight one executive functioning skill each week.
Even if you don’t have an entire class period to cover executive functioning skills, you can dedicate a week (or month – whatever works best for you) to cover them as you go. Start with planning. Spend a few minutes explaining what planning is and why we do it. Then, throughout the week, make it a point to highlight specific examples of when kids are planning, such as writing down in their homework logs or writing an outline before starting a complete report. Grab this free printable executive functioning poster to help explain each skill.
Discuss and list out strategies for getting stuck on assignments.
All kids and teens get stuck sometimes. Before challenging assignments, make a list of ideas for what to do when they don’t know the answers. Make a list to keep on the board or encourage kids to write down their own list ideas. This can even be a poster up in the classroom somewhere you review often. These strategies build flexibility and perseverance along the way.
Make mini-deadlines for a long-term project together.
When assigning a long-term project, take a few moments to map out important mini-deadlines with your students. So often, a long-term project is daunting for anyone. Breaking it apart into more manageable tasks can help with task initiation, organization, planning, and time management.
Give reminders for expected behaviors.
While giving reminders about behavior is just a best practice in the classroom, it’s also a way to strengthen executive functioning skills. Before a lesson, remind kids what behaviors you should see that would help them stay focused and pay attention. Before walking to another class, have a quick chat about how to stay quiet when walking in the hall (self-control). Not only will these reminders help students in the moment, but they can be a great way to reinforce executive functioning skills too.
Give daily and/or weekly organization time.
Daily (and weekly) organization time has huge benefits! Kids and teens need extra time to put papers in the correct spot, tidy up binders, and toss out pages they don’t need. This extra time reinforces the idea that organization is an ongoing practice (not something you do once!). Make it a regular routine by scheduling it into your day.
Movement is shown to increase skills for attention and memory. Make it a morning routine to do stretches, practice yoga, or do jumping jacks. You can change up the routine and even have student leaders (kids love this!). Most importantly, you’ll help set the stage for success for the rest of the day.
Use a visual timer.
A visual timer is a helpful tool that shows how much time is left for something. You can use these during quizzes, working sessions, organization time, or during a transition. It’s a great way to incorporate time management skills into whatever you are already doing.
Use task cards to discuss EF skills during downtime.
Use time during the minutes before class starts, while kids are waiting for the bus, or even between transitions. Every minute is valuable! Spend this time discussing questions and situations to build stronger executive functioning skills. Put your executive functioning task cards on a ring and ask the questions you have time for. Here are a few questions you might want to try (or grab these executive functioning task cards that are ready to go!):
- How could staying organized help you reduce stress? (organization)
- You have a lot of homework and you have practice at 6pm. What can you do? (planning)
- List three tasks you need to accomplish and estimate the time it might take to complete them. (time management)
- What are some routines that could help someone get started with work right away? (task initiation)
- A teacher in class gives a direction. What can you do to remember it? (working memory)
- Give two examples of times when someone might use self-control in school. (self-control)
Preview changes to the schedule and discuss staying flexible.
When a change to the schedule is coming up, spend time previewing and discussing the switch. For example, if you know there will be an assembly where students will miss part of their art time, bring it up sooner rather than later. This can help kids and teens build skills for flexibility while coping with change.
Talk about executive functioning skills in literature.
Characters show perseverance, self-control, and flexibility. Use such examples to talk about executive functioning skills and why they matter. These skills can be weaved into practically any short story or text, but you can also choose books that specifically target EF skills. Here are just a few:
- What We’ll Build by Oliver Jeffers (planning)
- Respect and Take Care of Things by Meredith Johnson (organization)
- The Paperboy by Dav Pilkey (task initiation)
- Your Fantastic, Elastic Brain by JoAnn Deak (metacognition)
- My Magical Choices by Becky Cummings (self-control)
- Salt in His Shoes by Deloris Jordan (perseverance)
I’ve also developed a set of executive functioning read-aloud stories with activities. These are great to teach skills like planning and time management in a concrete and fun way.
Instead of just talking about writing homework down or focusing in class, act out what these behaviors look like. You might say, “Who can show me what it looks like to put this paper away in your binder right away?” Kids and teens will love the acting practice, and it will help them commit these behaviors to memory for the future.
Model and practice positive self-talk.
Positive self-talk is a critical component for flexibility, self-control, and perseverance. Model, practice, and encourage positive self-talk often! Some examples of statements you might use include:
- “This is tough, but I can do this with hard work.” (perseverance)
- “I can think this through and make a plan.” (planning)
- “I am in control of my choices.” (self-control)
- “This didn’t go like I expected, but I’m going to go with the flow.” (flexibility)
Model using a calendar and homework assignment list.
Kids and teens do what they see. Keep a calendar in the classroom visible where important dates are posted on a regular basis. Similarly, set up a homework spot in the classroom where daily assignments are listed each day. Not only does this provide a clear model for students on how to stay organized and plan, but it also serves as a critical support to those who need an extra boost.
Use digital tools and supports.
Apps like MyHomework and Remind can be extremely helpful to keep kids and teens on track. Even online games and websites can provide a little extra support. One of my favorites is this site filled with virtual manipulatives kids can use in math. Feel free to explore more digital supports for executive functioning skills.
Send ideas home.
Not all executive functioning work needs to be done in school! Encourage families to plan a meal together (planning), learn something new (metacognition), or do a puzzle (working memory). Use this free digital and printable poster to send home to families with some ideas to start.
Estimate time for tasks.
Build time management skills by helping kids and teens understand how long tasks might or should take. You can even have them give their best estimates, record these, and compare once the task is done.
Allow work re-dos.
Let’s face it – kids and teens don’t always do their best on academic work. Consider times to allow kids to re-do their work for extra points. For example, if a student does poorly on a quiz, you might assign them to re-do the problems they got wrong and give a short written explanation for what they fixed to make it right. This helps kids and teens work on metacognition by thinking about their own thinking. They also work on flexibility by considering what they did wrong and what they need to change. Of course, this task also builds perseverance.
Games are a great way to give a break or reward at the end of the week. It’s easy to integrate executive functioning skills playing games when you are purposeful about the skills you’re practicing. Here are a few of my tried and true favorites:
- Scrabble (planning, flexibility)
- Jenga (planning, self-control)
- 5 Second Rule (time management, metacognition)
Learn more about other games to build and strengthen execuitve functioning skills.
Assign executive functioning work for early finishers.
If students finish early, give them the “reward” of working on a digital executive functioning workbook. It’s a fun and interactive set of lessons that teach meaningful skills, such as being self-aware, understanding how the brain works, how to plan, using self-control, getting organized, and more.
Model staying organized.
In the fast-paced world of being an educator, it’s not always easy to stay organized. Papers pile up. It’s important to note that kids and teens benefit from seeing more organized spaces in the classroom. That includes student workspaces, teacher desks, and even visual spaces around the room. Work to avoid clutter and organize spaces on a regular basis.
Use questioning techniques.
Rather than telling students what to do, use more questions. In other words, instead of telling kids what to do, try asking them what they should do. This takes a little longer, but builds critical problem-solving skills that help learners become independent over time. This practice prompts kids and teens to think and problem-solve on their own. These are really only limited by your imagination, but here are a few sample phrases you might try:
- “What should you do next?”
- “What do you think the best way to solve that might be?”
- “So, what can you do?”
- “What could you try?”
- “What are some steps to help you accomplish that?”
Give time checks during working sessions.
Kids and teens who struggle with time management often lack a good understanding of time in general. During working sessions, make a quick note when students have five or ten minutes left. Even better, you can try using a bell or chime to give a time warning.
Come up with “study lists” together before assessments.
In order for kids and teens to be able to study well, they need to know what to study. Believe it or not, this can be a huge mystery for kids who struggle with executive functioning. Before a quiz or test, make a study list with your students. While handing out a pre-made study list is helpful, it’s even better to do this practice with students. That’s because you are engaging their brains to start to think about what they need to study and why.
Visual supports can serve as simple and permanent reminders about executive functioning skills. For example, you can have a poster about perseverance encouraging kids to work hard and not give up when something in tough. You can even add your own strategies for what to do when they get stuck. Post these visuals around the room and refer to them whenever the particular skills come up.
Discuss prioritizing assignments.
Being able to prioritize is a critical skill for planning, organization, time management, and even task initiation. When many different activities are assigned all at once, make the most of your time by talking about how to prioritize them. For example, imagine students have a history quiz at the end of the week, a journal entry due tomorrow, and a book report that needs to be finished next Thursday. Spend time talking about how to juggle and prioritize which work should come first. Let kids brainstorm and share what works for them. So often, kids learn best from one another.
Use executive functioning activities as brain breaks.
All kids need a break sometimes. This is an important time to clear the mind. It just gives a reset! Use this time to play games and activities that also target executive functioning skills. For example, Simon Says is a simple game that can build self-control and attention skills. Need more ideas? Take a look at these executive functioning play activities!
Post an executive functioning bulletin board.
I’m a believer that visuals and bulletin boards in the classroom should be meaningful. Use this space to provide reminders about skills like planning, organization, self-control, and perseverance. Make your own with your students, or use this ready-to-go executive functioning bulletin board.
Responsibilities themselves build critical executive functioning skills. So often, kids and teens really enjoy having jobs in the classroom. Assign weekly or monthly responsibilities to students to help build their skills for planning, organization, time management, and perseverance. Some examples of responsibilities might include:
- Board cleaner
- Note messenger
- Pencil sharpener
- Attendance taker
- Technology support
Integrate arts and crafts.
Everyone needs an arts and crafts break sometimes! Consider adding some executive functioning skill work right into this time. One really fun and meaningful craft is to create “executive functioning keys” for each of the skills. You can then have kids hold up their keys when they are using the skill later on.
Conference individually with learners to work on goals.
Individual conferencing is a great way to work on a variety of executive functioning skills, and it can be done by teachers of any grade or academic area. Meet with students briefly once a week or once a month (this is going to depend on the number of students you have, of course). Mark SMART goals together for aspirations your students want to achieve. Go over how they are doing, what goals they’d like to work on in your class, and strategize a plan together. This builds skills for planning, organization, time management, flexibility, attention, and perseverance.
I hope some of these ideas have been helpful! If you love this article, please make sure to share with others, and feel free to comment below with any strategies you use in your classroom.