The Educator’s Guide to Executive Functions: How to Understand and Support Students in Need
Executive functioning develops more slowly in students with ADHD. Teachers may notice delays in the mental processes that help children concentrate, plan, and organize their classroom work. Helping begins with explaining EFs — setting up students to advocate for themselves — and requires creative strategies to achieve success in school.
Executive functioning refers to the mental processes that allow us to concentrate, plan, organize, complete tasks, and more. Executive function (EF) is not necessarily a household term, yet each one of us depends on these functions to lead a productive, organized life. To no one’s surprise, school is where our executive function skills are first tested and refined. They often unlock — or preclude — success in the classroom.
Executive dysfunction is ubiquitous in children with ADHD, which helps to explain why so many students with attention deficit are reprimanded for forgotten homework, disorganized projects, running out of time on tests, and more. But students with ADHD aren’t the only ones who struggle with EF skills. Other students may have individual, particular areas of executive dysfunction.
It is the responsibility of educators to be aware of executive functioning and to create environments that support all students. But the work shouldn’t stop there. Educators should also teach executive functioning language to all classroom learners, not just those who show deficits. When educators assist students with identifying their executive functioning strengths and areas of need, they also teach them how to advocate for their own needs in the classroom and beyond.
Executive Functions: A Primer for Teachers
Executive functioning comprises both the skills that involve thinking, or cognition, and skills that involve doing, or behavior. Here’s a breakdown of these skills and how some might look in the classroom:
Executive Function Skills: Cognition
- Working Memory is the process of working with information and drawing on past learning or experiences and applying it to the current situation. Finishing a math assignment and then putting it into the class basket requires this skill.
- Organization is the process of using your time and materials to effectively complete tasks. Organizational skills are typically stressed during the transition into sixth grade, when students go from a sheltered, small classroom to multiple classes and teachers throughout the day. The transition to high school similarly tests students’ organizational skills.
- Time Management is the process of estimating time needed to complete a given task. A student with poor time management skills may insist a homework assignment will only take 15 minutes, when it actually ends up taking them an hour. Time management is one of the biggest areas of need among students with ADHD.
- Metacognition is the process of self-identifying your individual areas of strength and areas of need. Weak metacognition may inhibit a student’s ability to see their challenges clearly and to advocate for themselves at school.
- Planning/Prioritizing is the process of creating a roadmap to reach a goal or complete a task.
Executive Function Skills: Behavioral
- Emotional Control is the process of controlling your emotions and managing them to fit the social situation.
- Response Inhibition is the process of thinking before one acts. It’s often difficult for students to stop, think, and then go, especially when they have audiences in school looking at them.
- Attention is the process to stay focused on a task, even amid distractions.
- Initiative is the process of organizing, prioritizing and activating tasks independently – a big challenge for middle school students and teenagers.
- Persistence is the process of enduring a sustained amount of time to complete a task. Persistence becomes more difficult as students pass through grade levels, as steps become more complicated.
- Flexibility is the process of changing your behavior in response to unforeseen circumstances.
Executive Functions and ADHD
Educators must understand executive functions and how they are inherently impaired by conditions like ADHD.
Many students with ADHD experience executive dysfunction in multiple areas, like concentration, working memory, and impulse control, which can make school complicated and difficult. True — it’s possible for a student without ADHD or another condition to have difficulties in these skills, too. The difference is that students with ADHD need help to support the weaker EFs, while those without ADHD can typically support themselves. Students with ADHD typically need to modify their environments and atmospheres to help strengthen their weaker EF skills.
Still, educators should look beyond the label. Not all students with ADHD exhibit the same difficulties, and a diagnosis for any condition isn’t required to recognize that a student may have EF challenges.
Teaching Executive Functions to Students
Educators should strive to create supportive atmospheres and equip their students with tools to independently express their areas of EF need. Educators can use what we call the “Four Tiers of Support” to set up this system in the classroom and beyond. They include:
- Teaching common EF language
- Identifying strengths and areas of need
- Setting up a classroom to support all students
- Teaching self-advocacy skills
Teaching Common EF Language & Identifying Strengths and Areas of Need
Educators should lay out and define these three terms for students:
- Executive Functions: The skills students need to carry out a given task (refer to the “thinking” and “behavior” approach outlined above when explaining these skills to students).
- Strengths: The things we can do well with little assistance.
- Areas of Need: The areas where we might need some help.
After introducing EF language, educators should encourage students to explore and communicate their strengths and needs. Teachers can create a positive, open environment for sharing by creating presentations that include interactive activities, discussions, videos, surveys, and more. Take it from us — children love to talk about themselves. They’ve been told what they’re not great at all their lives, and they’re looking for solutions, too.
Surveys are an effective way to get students to work through EF language and apply it to their experiences. Many informal executive functioning surveys are available for all grade levels that a teacher can modify to their specifications. There are also professional EF surveys, like the Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function, or BRIEF. A good survey should allow the student to identify both strong and lagging skills, and provide an example of each skill, good or bad, in action. Drawing a picture that symbolizes each skill is a fun way for students to engage with EF concepts and possibly learn the true extent of their concerns.
Completed student surveys contain valuable information for educators and school administrators alike — they reflect the students’ perspectives and express what they need. Educators should use the students’ survey responses to inform their approaches in the classroom, and even to craft better accommodations or prepare and modify IEPs or 504 Plans for students who have them.
EF language should be used throughout the classroom and, if possible, the school, to reinforce the importance of these skills. They should be physically posted in classrooms, counselors’ offices, conference rooms, and other places. Apart from students, school administrators and parents can also benefit from learning and using the EF language.
Setting Up Supportive Classrooms for Executive Function
Here’s a list of some classroom features and activities that target several common executive dysfunctions:
- Fidgets can be any small object, like a stress ball or a paperclip, which students can use to help them focus. Remember that if a fidget starts to distract the student or someone else, it’s no longer a fidget — it’s a toy.
- Noise-cancelling headphones can help block out unwanted noises to limit distractions.
- Movement breaks can increase focus and improve working memory.
- Alternative seating like lap desks, standing desks, and yoga balls can help the body attend to tasks in a non-disruptive way.
- Time management: Use tools like TimeTimers, iPhone reminders, and calendars to help students track the time it takes to complete a task. Start each class by prompting students to collect their thoughts and “pause and think.”
It’s up to educators to set appropriate times to use these strategies, but they should be available when needed most so that students can build their skills as independently as possible. Making a variety of tools and approaches available in a classroom also has the added benefit of helping students with accommodations feel less singled out.
Teaching Self-Advocacy Skills for Executive Function
Here’s a mini self-advocacy lesson plan for EF for the classroom:
- Hang large EF posters all over the classroom. Each poster should define one EF, as well as examples and solutions, and it should include extra space for students to write on.
- Direct students to stand by the poster that represents their strongest EF skill.
- Ask students to write everything they do that helps them excel in that skill. Set a timer for up to 15 minutes.
- Direct students (perhaps in another session) to stand by the poster that represents their biggest area of need.
- Ask each student to pick one strategy listed on the poster to try that day to help them improve in that area of need.
- Keep these posters up throughout the year and refer back to them often!
The most important goal is for students to one day function independently. This can be achieved by creating an environment where executive functions are acknowledged and supported by educators.
The content for this article was derived from the ADDitude webinar, “Teaching Executive Functions to Children with ADHD: A Course for Teachers (and Parents)” by Karen Huberty, M.Ed., Maureen Bechard, M.S., which broadcast live on August 13, 2019.
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Updated on March 8, 2021