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Executive Function

From remembering assignments to being punctual for practice, strong executive function skills play a pivotal role in navigating daily life effectively. In fact, one’s ability to apply and utilize Executive Function skills efficiently is the best indicator of lifelong success! In kindergarten through high school classrooms, we use Executive Function to help our students build the mental processes that allow them to plan, focus their attention, remember and follow instructions, and juggle multiple tasks simultaneously. These skills also enhance academic performance, contribute to building robust relationships, and even help reduce anxiety.

The role of Executive Function Skills in Learning

Executive function encompasses a set of cognitive processes and mental skills essential for effective task execution and problem-solving. The skills are acquired over time through direct instruction, practice and reinforcement. In practical terms, executive functioning refers to how the brain manages, plans, organizes, and sets goals to complete tasks efficiently and
thoroughly. For students, strong executive functioning is crucial for becoming independent and successful adults. 

These essential features of executive function manifest in our ability to:

o    This involves effectively strategizing and organizing our actions. Whether it’s planning a project, setting goals, or outlining steps, strong executive function helps us navigate tasks efficiently.

o    Keeping a sense of time is crucial. Managing schedules, meeting deadlines, and allocating time appropriately are all part of this skill.

o    Juggling multiple tasks or responsibilities simultaneously requires effective task-switching and attention management. It’s like keeping several plates spinning without dropping any!

o    Thoughtfully incorporating prior information into discussions allows us to draw on our experiences, learn from mistakes, and build on what we know.

o    Engaging effectively in social interactions involves understanding group dynamics, cooperating, and communicating with others. It’s about being a team player.

o    Assessing and analyzing concepts or proposals helps us make informed decisions. Critical thinking and weighing pros and cons are key here.

o    Thoughtfully reviewing our efforts and progress allows us to learn and improve. It’s like having a mental mirror to assess how we’re doing.

o    Flexibility is essential. Making mid-course adjustments while thinking, reading, or writing ensures we stay on track even if the path changes.

o    Finishing tasks within specified timeframes requires effective time management. It’s about balancing urgency and quality.

o    Knowing when to ask for help is a sign of self-awareness. It’s okay to seek guidance—it’s a strength, not a weakness.

o    Patience is a virtue. Waiting until called upon to speak shows respect and consideration for others.

o    Actively seeking additional information when needed ensures we make informed decisions. Curiosity fuels learning and growth.


Types of Executive Functions: definition, description, and examples.

The capacity to think before you act – this ability to resist the urge to say or do something allows us the time to evaluate a situation and how our behavior might impact it.
o    Impulsivity: Jumping into work without reading directions.
o    Social Impulsivity: Blurting out hurtful things to peers or classmates.
o    In the young child, waiting for a short period without being disruptive 
o    An adolescent would accept a referee’s call without an argument.

The ability to hold information in memory while performing complex tasks. It incorporates the ability to draw on past learning or experience to apply to the situation at hand or to project into the future.
o    Forgetfulness: Forgetting to put a math book in the backpack.
o    Rule Forgetfulness: Forgetting rules for games.
o    A young child, for example, can hold in mind and follow 1-2 step directions. 
o    The adolescent can remember the expectations of multiple teachers.

The ability to manage emotions to achieve goals, complete tasks, or control and direct behavior.
o    Frustration: Getting frustrated and shutting down when not understanding worksheet instructions.
o    Emotional Reactivity: Lashing out at peers when upset during lunchtime.
o    A young child with this skill can recover from disappointment in a short time. 
o    A teenager is able to manage the anxiety of a game or test and still perform.

The ability to revise plans in the face of obstacles, setbacks, new information or mistakes. It relates to adaptability to changing conditions.
o    Adaptability Challenges: Struggling with creative writing assignments or other open-ended tasks.
o    Emotional Rigidity: Becoming upset when a planned event or activity gets canceled.
o    A young child can adjust to a change in plans without major distress. 
o    A high school student can accept an alternative such as a different job when the first choice is not available.

The capacity to maintain attention to a situation or task in spite of distractibility, fatigue, or boredom.
o    Distractibility: Getting distracted before completing work at the table.
o    Selective Attention: Not listening to instructions or missing important plays on the playing field due to distractions. 
o    Completing a 5-minute chore with occasional supervision is an example of sustained attention in the younger child. 
o    The teenager is able to attend to homework, with short breaks, for one to two hours.

The ability to begin projects without undue procrastination, in an efficient or timely fashion.
o    Getting Started: Initiating tasks and staying on track.
o    Procrastination: Dawdling before starting work.
o    Follow-Through Issues: Failing to follow through on promised actions during group activities. 
o    A young child is able to start a chore or assignment right after instructions are given. 
o    A high school student does not wait until the last minute to begin a project.

The ability to create a roadmap to reach a goal or to complete a task. It also involves being able to make decisions about what’s important to focus on and what’s not important.
o    Long-Term Project Challenges: Difficulty carrying out long-term projects.
o    Anticipatory Planning: Struggling to think ahead (e.g., packing for a field trip or activity with friends).
o    A young child, with coaching, can think of options to settle a peer conflict.
o    A teenager can formulate a plan to get a job:

The ability to create and maintain systems to keep track of information or materials.
o    Disorganization: Losing papers and having messy notebooks and backpacks.
o    Item Tracking: Leaving things behind at school or on the playing field.
o    A young child can, with a reminder, put toys in a designated place. 
o    An adolescent can organize and locate sports equipment.

The capacity to estimate how much time one has, how to allocate it, and how to stay within time limits and deadlines. It also involves a sense that time is important.
o    Poor Time Allocation: Failing to allocate sufficient time for long-term projects.
o    Punctuality Issues: Being late for school or keeping friends and family waiting for organized activities.
o    A young child can complete a short job within a time limit set by an adult. 
o    A high school student can establish a schedule to meet task deadlines.

The capacity to have a goal, follow through to the completion of the goal, and not be put off by or distracted by competing interests.
o    Lack of Future Goals: Not setting goals for the future or connecting present actions to long-term aspirations (e.g., wanting to go to college but not investing time in earning good grades).
o    Present-Centric Choices: Making decisions based solely on immediate needs and interests.
o    A young primary student can complete a job in order to get to playtime.
o     A teenager can earn and save money over time to buy something of importance.

The ability to stand back and take a birds-eye view of oneself in a situation. It is an ability to observe how one problem solves. It also includes self-monitoring and self-evaluative skills (e.g., asking yourself, “How am I doing? or How did I do?”).
o    Analytical Challenges: Struggling with tasks that require analysis or abstract thinking.
o    Social Insight: Difficulty understanding the impact of behavior on others or comprehending peers’ reactions.
o    A young child can change behavior is response to feedback from an adult.
o    A teenager can monitor and critique her performance and improve it by observing others who are more skilled


Why Are These Skills Crucial for Students?
o    Independence: Strong executive functioning helps students become independent adults.
o    Academic Performance: These skills enhance learning outcomes.
o    Relationship Building: Effective communication and adaptability contribute to robust relationships.
o    Anxiety Reduction: Well-developed executive functions can reduce anxiety.

Variability Among Individuals:
o    Everyone Has Them: All individuals possess executive functions.
o    Unique Strengths and Challenges: Each person’s abilities vary.
o    Late Development: Some functions may fully develop only in late twenties.

What are some strategies to help?
In classrooms, explicit teaching methods help pave the way for success!

•    Take step-by-step approaches to work; rely on visual organizational aids.
•    Use tools like time organizers, computers or watches with alarms.
•    Prepare visual schedules and review them several times a day.
•    Ask for written directions with oral instructions whenever possible.
•    Plan and structure transition times and shifts in activities.
•    Give the big picture of what is required.
•    Explicit instruction for completing a task

•    Create checklists and “to do” lists, estimating how long tasks will take.
•    Break long assignments into chunks and assign time frames for completing each chunk.
•    Use visual calendars to keep track of long term assignments, due dates, chores, and activities.
•    Use management software such as the Franklin Day Planner, Palm Pilot, or Lotus Organizer.
•    Be sure to write the due date on top of each assignment.

•    Organize workspace.
•    Minimize clutter.
•    Consider having separate work areas with complete sets of supplies for different activities.
•    Schedule a weekly time to clean and organize the work space.
•    Reducing distractions in the classroom or study area


•    Make a checklist for getting through assignments. For example, a student’s checklist could include such items as: get out pencil and paper; put name on paper; put due date on paper; read directions; etc.
•    Meet with a teacher or supervisor on a regular basis to review work; troubleshoot problems.