The executive functions are a set of processes relating to how people manage themselves and their resources in order to achieve a goal. Executive functions represent a variety of skills — from organization and time management to flexibility and perseverance — that are needed to overcome obstacles and make good choices.
As a special educator and TpT Teacher-Author who’s passionate about the importance of children developing strong executive function skills, Pathway 2 Success has written a number of articles on this topic. She explains in one post on her blog: “Sometimes, it’s helpful to think of executive functions like an air traffic controller in our brains. The executive functions 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’re working efficiently and effectively while completing daily tasks.”
As adults, executive function 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 don’t interrupt someone. The overwhelming sentiment among Pathway 2 Success and other Teacher-Authors we talked to about this topic are that children don’t simply develop these skills — these skills must be taught.
The Importance of Administrator Buy-In
So how can teachers — with all of their competing priorities — ensure they have the space in their day to teach these skills to their students? The Teacher-Authors we spoke to agreed that getting administrator buy-in is extremely important. Getting this buy-in, though, starts with administrators having more of an understanding of how a deficit in executive function skills is often related to common issues like procrastination and low attention spans. For instance, students with executive function issues often have trouble planning, managing time, and organizing. This can manifest as lacking motivation to complete an assignment, “Getting started on an assignment or a classroom project is an executive function skill,” says author and former classroom teacher Chris A. Zeigler Dendy. “It’s not that the child doesn’t want to get started; it’s that they are having trouble getting started. They have difficulty planning ahead. They have difficulty organizing and synthesizing things.” Empowering OT by Dr R, a licensed Occupational Therapist with a doctorate in occupational therapy, often notices this gap in administrators’ understanding of executive function skills. “Students may be referred to me for deficits in problem-solving or issues with impulsivity or organization, but these are often just recognized as ‘issues.’ They aren’t necessarily labeled as executive function difficulties,” she says. “When students have deficits in one of the underlying areas of executive function, this is going to impact multiple areas of their day.”
Administrators can help their staff by putting some foundational interventions and supports in place. As Pathway 2 Success suggests, some examples of these interventions might include “small study skills groups during study hall time, an after school homework club, a check-in and check-out during homeroom time, and more specialized 1:1 intervention plans for learners who are struggling the most.” Likely, these are already present in your schedule, and are natural points throughout the day for reinforcing executive function skills that your students are struggling with. If you want to hone in more deeply on a specific executive function skill like organization, for instance, you could work with teachers to make sure that the same paragraph structures for writing essays — like RADD, RACE, and PEEL — are being used across grade levels and subjects. Having one or two school-wide approaches for essay organization allows teachers to be more aligned and to reinforce these skills in intervention moments like a study hall or a one-on-one tutoring session.
Tips and Ideas for Teaching Executive Function Skills
There are many opportunities for teachers to foster these skills in their students, especially when teachers have the support of their administrator to dedicate time to this in their day. Elizabeth of Empowering OT by Dr R says that teaching executive function skills is a matter of recognizing natural and easy ways to embed practice and modeling. This can even be based on the teacher’s schedule and what’s most convenient for them, she explains. For preschool students, she says it can look like something as simple as incorporating games that teach turn-taking, and simple sequencing. And for students of all ages, here are some of her ideas:
- Incorporate it into morning and afternoon routines. By allowing a few extra minutes in the morning or afternoon to model routine for students, you can help students develop many skills such as sequencing, problem solving, prioritizing, time management, and organization. This is something that can easily transfer to everyday activities as children are practicing skills in their natural environment. It’s also a good time to recognize students who may need extra help with executive function skills and may benefit from visuals, timers, and further supports.
- Incorporate it into larger projects. Projects — from simple craft projects to long-term projects — are another way to help students flex these skills. Teachers can model how they set the long- term and short-term goals that they want to achieve, set a plan to complete the goals, gather materials, and complete the project. Consider showing students a completed project and asking them what they feel they’ll need to complete it. Once materials are gathered, discuss each step of the project. When students are working on the project, discuss how they can prioritize steps, and use this time to talk about the importance of time management.
- Incorporate it into daily work. In the classroom, teachers can also incorporate teaching executive function components by reminding students of steps they need to take to complete their everyday work such as 1) setting a goal 2) gathering materials 3) Starting the plan 4) checking in on my goals.
It’s Never too Early to Start
Pathway 2 Success, too, stresses the importance of starting to foster these skills in students from a young age. “Early interventions with executive function skills are essential,” she says. “Many educators know that executive function skills often become a huge roadblock at the secondary level because there are higher academic and social demands placed upon young adults at this stage. However, what is sometimes overlooked is that kids can struggle with these skills long before middle and high school.” With that, she suggests some strategies and supports that can and should be put into place early on for younger learners.
First, educators can explicitly teach about executive function skills, even to primary kids. “They can talk about the skills, explain what they mean, model them, and highlight why they are important in life. Games are also a great way to target these skills. Simon Says can be used to practice self-control and attention. Pictionary is a fun activity that can target flexibility and time management. Even simple brain teasers and word games can provide practice with perseverance. She’s developed a blog post for more games to teach executive function skills as well as play activities to practice the skills.” Most importantly, when kids are struggling with basic skills like keeping their desk organized (organization) or starting their work right away (task initiation), it’s important for teachers provide interventions to support and teach those skills right away. The earlier that executive function challenges are addressed, she says, the better for learners.
And one last important note: “It’s so important to mention that executive function challenges aren’t a special education issue,” says Pathway 2 Success. “Sometimes this is misunderstood. All learners can struggle with skills like attention, organization, and self-control. This is why administrators need to work to create a school culture that is supportive of executive function needs. When all educators understand and provide supports for executive function needs, all kids benefit.”
Here are a few resources from the Teacher-Authors featured in this piece that help support the teaching of executive functioning skills:
- Executive Functioning Task Cards for Elementary Learners (grades 2-5)
- Executive Functioning Activities for Little Learners (grades 1-4)
- Executive Functioning Games and Play Activities (grades K-5)
- Executive Functioning HANDOUTS for preschool and elementary students…. OT sped (grades PreK-5)
- How does my body feel / coping tools for the classroom Sensory processing k12345 (grades PreK-5)