illustration of a file organizer, a notebook, a happy and sad face, a lightbulb, and two on off toggle buttons

If there’s one thing educators have learned over the last year and a half, it’s that change is inevitable. Whether you’re back in person full time or still fluctuating between remote and hybrid, students will need strong executive function skills to adjust to change. Let’s take a look at what executive function skills are and how you can support them in the classroom.

What Is Executive Function?

Executive function is the set of cognitive processes that give students the ability to self-manage and self-regulate. These skills give students the ability to plan, time manage, focus their attention, regulate their emotions, and more. All of these skills are central to a student’s ability to succeed in a remote learning environment, making executive function skills incredibly important to teach and support during distance learning.

Why Is Supporting Executive Function So Important?

The stress and potential trauma students may be experiencing due to the pandemic can take a toll on their executive function skills. Brittany from Success in Special Education explains: “Stress and trauma can affect students of all ages in a variety of ways. If a student feels anxious, depressed or overwhelmed, this can impact their ability to focus on content, participate in the classroom, or engage with others.”  For example, students may struggle with calling out in class, keeping their attention during lessons, managing their time outside the structure of a regular school day, or starting and finishing assignments.

Thankfully, executive function skills can be supported and taught, and giving these skills the attention they need can lead to a more productive year overall. To discover strategies you can use to support executive function this year, check out the infographic below and browse the suggested resources for explicitly teaching executive function skills.

Tips for Supporting Executive Function Skills

Stress and trauma can take a toll on executive function skills, making now a critical time to focus on them. Here are 13 strategies you can use to support your students’ executive function skills.

Time Management

  • Provide an estimate of how long tasks should take and have students use a timer.
  • Have families prepare a regular schedule for at-home learning in case of school closures.

Planning and Completing Tasks

  • Break large tasks into smaller chunks and check in frequently on student progress.
  • Have students record assignments and due dates in one location.
  • Provide written or visual directions for assignments, especially when students have less access to you when learning at home.

Mental and Physical Organization

  • Share guidance with students on how to set up a productive workspace at home.
  • Create a checklist of what students will need to bring home for a transition to distance learning.
  • Photograph and copy classroom visual aids so students can reference them at home.

Focus and Attention

  • Provide guided notes to highlight key parts of a lesson and encourage active listening.
  • Record online lessons so students can revisit them if needed.
  • Ask students and families to remove distractions from an at-home workspace.

Practicing Self-Regulation

  • Talk to students about the changes that may happen throughout the school year, how it might make them feel, and what they can do to respond to those feelings.
  • Incorporate physical activity or brain breaks in instruction.

Digital Resources for Teaching and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Your Students

SELF-CONTROL Lesson to Build the Executive Functioning Skill of Impulse Control by WholeHearted School Counseling
Grades 2-5

The Teacher-Author indicated this resource includes assets from Google Workspace (e.g. docs, slides, etc.).

Executive Functioning Skills Lessons & Activities – Digital & Print by Pathway 2 Success
Grades 5-8

Flexible Thinking Dealing with Change for Middle and High School by Success in Special Ed
Grades 7-10

“Executive Functioning” 15 worksheets grades 6-9- Google Slides version included by School Counseling Essentials
Grades 6-12