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17 ways to teach executive functioning skills in school

Updated: Apr 25, 2023

Executive functioning (EF) skills are essential tools to support lifelong success in both personal and professional life.

These skills — like organizing, planning, problem-solving, and decision-making — are vital. They are necessary for managing day-to-day tasks, being productive in the workplace or classroom, handling challenging situations effectively, and leading a fulfilling life.

As educators who work with students of all ages on the development of these important competencies daily, it is our responsibility to provide students with the strategies they need to build their EF skills.

This blog will explore some tips and tricks teachers can use to engage their students while building executive functioning abilities in the classroom.

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Green image of how to teach executive function skills to students with image of brain and student jumping
5 ways to teach executive function skills

What Are Executive Function Strategies?

Executive function strategies refer to a set of cognitive abilities that enable us to plan, prioritize, and efficiently manage our tasks and goals. These skills include working memory, self-control, focus, problem solving, and self-direction.

They allow us to organize and complete goals as well as adjust our behavior in different situations. In order to effectively employ executive functioning strategies, people must be able to understand their environment, recognize potential obstacles, and at the same time be able to control emotions and impulses.

Executive functioning strategies are a set of mental processes that allow individuals to remain organized, focused, and goal-oriented.

The bad news?

These aren't skills we're born with. In fact, many of us struggle with at least one aspect of executive functioning, whether it's organization, self-control, or focus.

The good news?

These skills are easily taught and instruction can be embedded into any part of the curriculum - or any part of the day. You don't even have to be a formal educator in order to incorporate these strategies. They're also easy to use for parents.

Let's take a closer look.

What Are Effective Ways to Support Children's Developing Executive Functioning Abilities?

Do you have a child that struggles with executive functioning skills like impulse control, time management, and task organization? If so, you’re not alone. Many children have difficulty developing these skills.

Fortunately, there are some effective strategies you can use to help your child develop their executive functioning abilities.

1. Create and Post Routines

Creating and posting routines can be an effective way to support executive functioning development in children. Routines provide structure and consistency, which can help your child stay organized and on track with tasks.

You can post routines for daily activities like brushing teeth or getting dressed as well as for weekly or monthly events like going to the library or attending extra-curricular activities.

You could even try creating routines that involve fun activities like playing games or doing puzzles together as a family.

2. Post a Daily, Weekly, and Monthly Schedule

Schedules are one of the best tools for helping children with executive functioning difficulties stay on track. Posting a daily schedule is especially useful because it gives your child a visual representation of what they need to do each day—and when they need to do it.

By having both weekly and monthly schedules posted in plain view (e.g., on the refrigerator), your child will be able to see what they need to do in the near future as well as farther down the road. This will help them plan ahead and stay organized—two important elements of successful executive functioning development.

3. Embed EF Instruction Into Your Content

Another effective way to support your child’s executive functioning skills is by embedding EF instruction into activities they already enjoy doing. For example, if your child loves reading books about animals, you could use those stories as an opportunity to teach them about organizing their thoughts or managing their time better.

For example, you could ask questions like:

  • How long do you think it would take (name of character) to complete (name of activity)?

  • What steps would (name of character) need to complete before they could (goal or task character is working on)?

By embedding EF instruction into content that your child already enjoys engaging with, you’ll make learning about these important skills more enjoyable for them—which will make it easier for them to retain this information over time.

It may help to keep this simple equation in mind:

Information + Emotion = Memory

4. Provide Time for Organization During the Day

In order to stay organized and on top of their responsibilities, kids need dedicated time during their day when they can focus on organizing their thoughts and belongings without interruption or distraction from other activities or people in the house or classroom.

Make sure there is ample opportunity for this throughout the day so that kids can practice organizing without feeling rushed or overwhelmed by other competing priorities.

At home, I sit with my daughter and wife after dinner and write out what we need to do after dinner on a whiteboard together. Then, we assign responsibilities and put on Mariah Carey while we complete our tasks. Our list looks something like this:

  • Clear table -- Kiana

  • Make Aleanna's lunch -- Sean and Aleanna

  • Wash dishes - Kiana

  • Tidy up playroom -- Sean and Aleanna

  • Brush and floss -- Sean and Aleanna

  • Sit in hot tub -- everyone!

For teachers, you may want to provide this time at the end of the day, before your students get on the bus or are picked up, to make sure they have everything they need for the night, or even first thing in the morning.

The more you build planning and follow through checks into your daily routine, the more success you will see for all students!

As a special education teacher in a counseling enriched classroom, I would float around the room and check each student's planner with them to make sure they had a clear plan for the day and the support they need to complete their plan.

5. Assign Long-Term Projects, but With Mini-Deadlines

When faced with difficult assignments or tasks, breaking down those tasks into smaller steps can help make them easier for kids (and adults) to tackle. This is also known as chunking.

Rather than giving your child one big task that seems overwhelming and daunting, break it up into smaller tasks so they can focus on one thing at a time and see tangible progress as they work through the task step-by-step.

You can also provide verbal cues as reminders throughout each step of the process. Try using verbal cues that help students make executive decisions like:

  • What do you think is the next step?

  • Why did you choose that step next?

  • What could you do in the next 5 minutes to make progress on this?

6. Reduce Sensory Distractions of All Kinds

When children are trying to focus on a task or learn something new, it can be difficult for them if there are too many distractions in the environment.

To reduce sensory distractions of all kinds, try to create an organized space where your child can work without being interrupted by loud noises or clutter.

This could mean setting up a quiet corner in the house with minimal noise and visual stimuli. You may also want to avoid electronics such as TVs or phones while your child is working, as these can be particularly distracting.

If you are looking for technology options that are set up to help reduce distractions, I recently learned about the Gabb phone from a client that can only make calls, but cannot be used for the internet.

7. Use Timers

Timers can be an effective way to help children stay focused on tasks and practice self-regulation. Start by introducing the timer with a simple game such as “beat the clock” where you encourage your child to complete a task before time runs out.

To empower your student, ask them, "How long will do you think it will take you to (task they are working on)?

By having them create time estimates, they are also reducing the impact of time blindness which impacts many students with ADHD. This strategy also teaches them how much time they should realistically dedicate to certain tasks.

As they get used to using the timer, you can gradually increase the amount of time they have to complete tasks and provide rewards when they finish within that time frame.

8. Explicitly State When Important Information or Content is Being Shared

It is important for children (and adults) alike to understand what is expected of them during lessons so that they don’t become overwhelmed by large amounts of information being shared at once.

To ensure that all important information is retained, make sure you explicitly state when content is being introduced during lessons or activities – this helps your child keep track of what they need to remember and makes sure nothing gets lost in translation.

Not only that, but providing visual aids such as diagrams or pictures can also help reinforce key points that are discussed during lessons.

9. Schedule In Movement Breaks

Movement breaks provide children with an opportunity to move their bodies while also taking a break from their work. Studies show that movement is essential for good executive functioning.

Movement breaks can include activities like jumping jacks, running in place, and stretches. Taking movement breaks also helps stimulate the brain and can actually help improve concentration when it comes time to return to work tasks.

This makes them an excellent tool for helping kids develop positive executive functioning habits.

10. Help Kids Work Through Challenges

It can be tempting to jump in and take over when your child is struggling with something, but this doesn’t do much to encourage problem-solving skills or build confidence.

Instead of swooping in to solve the problem for them, try offering guidance and support as they work through it themselves.

Ask questions that will help them think through the problem and come up with solutions on their own. This will not only help your child develop stronger executive functioning abilities but will also provide them with a sense of accomplishment upon completion.

Questions you can ask are:

  • What is another way you could approach this?

  • What would help you clear your mind to think about this challenge differently?

  • What are three different solutions that would address this issue?

Remember to ask open ended questions that encourage your student to generate solutions using their creativity and fluid reasoning.

11. Play EF Games

There are plenty of games that focus on improving executive functioning skills such as memory games, board games, card games, and puzzles.

These types of activities engage multiple areas of the brain at once, which helps strengthen overall cognitive development, including working memory, organization skills, planning skills, impulse control, and decision-making.

For example, when playing chess you have to:

  • Think multiple steps ahead

  • Weigh the pro's and con's of each decision

  • Make sacrifices for greater gains

Plus, playing games is just plain fun! It provides an entertaining way for kids to practice their executive functioning skills without even realizing it.

12. Start Homework In Class

One of the best ways to help kids develop executive functioning skills is by teaching them to start their homework right away. This might sound like a simple task, but for many kids, it is actually quite difficult to navigate the transition from school to home.

The good news is that this skill can be taught in the classroom.

By having students start their homework during class time, it will teach them the importance of planning ahead and getting things done on time. It also gives teachers the opportunity to provide guidance and support when needed.

13. Try Social Mentoring

Another great way to help kids with executive functioning is through social mentoring. This involves pairing up students with mentors who are knowledgeable about their subject matter and can provide guidance and advice when needed.

This kind of relationship helps build trust between student and mentor, which can lead to better communication and problem-solving skills down the road.

Plus, it’s a great way for kids to gain confidence in themselves while learning from someone they look up to.

14. Use Apps

One of the most effective ways to support children's developing executive functioning abilities is by using apps specifically designed for this purpose.

There are plenty of apps out there that focus on helping improve cognitive function and organizational skills, such as task management and goal setting.

These apps make it easy for kids (and adults) to track progress toward goals while also providing feedback and additional resources if needed.

Some good options to try include:

15. Always Use Rubrics, Checklists, and Other Visuals

Using rubrics, checklists, and other visuals when teaching children can be very helpful in helping them understand concepts more clearly. This type of visual aid not only helps children see what they need to do or what is expected from them but also helps them track their own progress.

For example, if you have a child who loves sports or video games, you can create a rubric or checklist for them that outlines the expectations for completing tasks or projects related to those things.

This will help them learn how to manage their time more effectively, as well as provide an easy-to-follow guide for completing tasks.

15. Teach Students How To Plan Out Projects

Instead of giving students a graphic organizer with upcoming deadlines and due dates, teach them how to do it in class. This allows them to take executive control over their time.

Here are some ways you can embed this into your lessons:

  • Have them put big deadlines into Google calendar

  • Have them break those deadlines into Google Tasks

  • Have them set alarms on their phones and external reminders

  • Teach them how to self-evaluate their progress

  • Have them find accountability partners

If you build the actual planning process into class time, they will build their executive functioning skills and their content knowledge. It’s a win win!

17. Remember - Everybody (Including You) is Human

Humor is always an effective way to engage children in learning activities. Not only does it keep things lighthearted, but it also helps children realize that they don't have to take everything so seriously all the time.

Plus, it allows us adults to remember that we, too, are human and need a break every now and then!

This doesn't mean you should make jokes at your students' expense; rather, use humor in appropriate ways, such as self-deprecating jokes or anecdotes about your own experiences as a student when you were younger.

We're all human - and knowing that we make mistakes and all struggle with certain aspects of executive functioning from time to time is a crucial part of our understanding as parents, educators, and learners ourselves.

Final Thoughts

While there is no one intervention or “cure” for every student with executive functioning challenges, schools and families can work together to build skills in these areas.

Try out some of the suggested strategies above with your students or child at home to help support their EF development. If you're still struggling, be sure to sign up for executive function coaching to make sure you get the help you need.

With a little extra effort and patience, you may be surprised at the progress they make.

About the author

Sean G. McCormick is the founder of Executive Function Specialists, an online coaching business which guides middle, high school, and college students in overcoming procrastination, disorganization and anxiety by teaching time management, prioritization and communication skills so they feel motivated, prepared, and empowered.

He also founded the Executive Function Coaching Academy which trains special education teachers, school psychologists and other professionals to support students with ADHD and executive function challenges.

Sean is regularly featured across media channels for his expertise on executive function, ADHD and special education.

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About 👋

EFS started with one teacher deciding that kids with ADHD needed better access to quality executive function coaching services. Since then, we have grown to a team of specialists working both private students and public schools to enhance executive function skills for all students. 

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