Executive Functions

Executive Function Unlocked: Tips for Teachers in Neurodiverse Classrooms

Educators share their top tips for developing stronger executive function skills and independence in students with ADHD and learning differences.

Young girl looks bored, distracted as she sits with her binder doing homework.

Executive functions develop in spurts and phases. Elementary school students learn to skillfully switch between tasks, resist distractions, and think before they act. Around age 10, cognitive flexibility helps them learn from their mistakes and shift perspectives. And as they move through adolescence, teens become increasingly better at time management, complex projects, and critical thinking.

These milestones are characteristic of neurotypical brains, but what about students with ADHD and learning differences? According to a survey conducted by ADDitude, most educators have at least one neurodivergent learner in their classroom. For these children, simple tasks like waiting to speak and turning in homework on time are often encumbered by executive function delays.

The educators in our ADDitude community recommend getting to know each student individually and having on hand a mixed bag of executive function supports that can meet the learning demands of a neurodiverse classroom. Read on for educator-recommended ways to develop independence among all students.

Executive Function Teaching Strategies

“I do not allow my students to be dependent on me. I use the phrase ‘three before me’ meaning they must go to three students to help them answer the question or solve the issue before asking me.”

“For my impulsive students who can’t help but speak out of turn or interrupt, I have given them Blurt Beans. They start the day off with five and each time they forget to raise their hand, a bean is taken away.”

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“Read your students and their moods on a daily basis. Some days will be more productive than others; be flexible and willing to adapt the work. Lessons you had planned may need to be delivered differently. Offering additional resources can enhance the learning experience. It’s all about knowing your students.”

“Empowering each student to tell me what works for them and what does not has been most impactful over more than 10 years of teaching high schoolers. Too often, teachers try to dictate specific strategies that students must use to help them stay organized. Yet when a savvy student tries an approach and fails, they need to feel it’s okay to try something new.”

“Provide a high level of support with the goal of transferring some of the responsibility to the child gradually. It’s just like scaffolding a lesson — I do, we do, you do — but over a longer period of time when teaching executive function skills.”

“We have a lesson every two weeks on how to implement strategies like note taking, setting alarms, and using executive function apps.”

[Read: Text-to-Speech (and Speech-to-Text) Tools to Address Reading and Writing Challenges]

I let students that can work more independently do so and ask them to aid their peers along the way. Teaching helps them learn better and develop positive socialization skills. I also don’t dismiss their feelings. I try to talk through and validate their emotions before we discuss solutions. Students need to be seen, heard, and taught how to manage their feelings in a positive way.”

When they are stuck, my students write down the steps to completing the task. Then, I have them circle the step that they see as the most difficult and break it down into three further steps (even if it seems silly). I sometimes have them rate the perceived difficulty of the task from 1 to 5 before and after they complete it. This gives them a strategy that they can use on their own to increase self-confidence and follow through on tasks.”

“The particular mix of strategies and approaches depends on the individual learner and their context. In terms of increasing independence, I provide solid building blocks and frameworks, and then gradually reduce my active management as I hand responsibility over to the learner. It is important to move out of the ‘ringmaster’ role and become the ‘safety net.’ I keep detailed records of progress so that I can show the learner, and their parents and teachers, just how far they’ve come.”

“Students need a chance to practice new skills with room to make mistakes in a supportive environment. This has been one of the most valuable takeaways from our dual enrollment partnership with Landmark College.”

“The AVID program has proven to be helpful for a lot of students who struggle with executive functioning skills. There are homework checks, tutorials, focused note-taking sessions, and other tasks incorporated into the program. Most students in the AVID program at our school will have the same teacher for all four years of high school. This generally leads to stronger relationships among the student, parent, and teacher.”

“For my own daughter, I often ask her how long she thinks an assignment or task will take. If she has no idea, I still have her guess. She’s slowly getting better at her time estimates.”

“Give them ownership of their progress. Give them ownership of their data. If they graph their progress, it’s easier to identify growth and celebrate it. It’s also easier to identify what’s not working and make adjustments… Progress monitoring data is easily available.”

“Trying to make those students team leaders seems to help in my class. It allows them to see that sometimes leading is not all it’s cracked up to be. Usually, they do a really good job… Sometimes, inadvertently, other teachers don’t allow students to be as independent as they should be which can stunt their growth.”

How to Teach Executive Functions: Next Steps

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