How to Improve Executive Functioning Skills

How to Improve Executive Functioning Skills

Beverly Azarchi is a Learning Disabilities Teacher-Consultant in New Jersey and serves on a middle school Child Study Team. She has over 22 years of experience with learning-disabled students—many of whom struggled with executive functioning—as a teacher, evaluator, consultant, and Child Study Team member. 

Does this scenario seem familiar?

A bright high school student named Maria is trying to tackle her homework, which includes beginning a research project after school. Her best friend texts her to discuss something that happened at lunch that day. Although Maria had planned to call her friend after her work was done, she is drawn into the discussion and continues texting while trying to work on her project. Then, Maria’s mother calls to remind her to take that night’s dinner out of the freezer for defrosting. Maria says she will, then gets back to texting and reading.

By the time her friend has to go, Maria feels a little too distracted and overwhelmed to go back to the project, and she is uncertain about how to begin her other assignments. She decides to catch up on one of her favorite shows, forgetting about the freezer task. Maria figures that when her mom comes home, her mom will tell her what she needs to do next. Maria is relying on her mom to act as the executive function command center, a pattern of dependence that has been reinforced by years of similar behavior. 

Many young people with executive functioning impairments share this over-reliance on parents or teachers to help them with the self-management tasks needed to meet the demands of their busy lives. Once these students leave the structured home setting to attend college or enter the job market, they often struggle to create a smoothly functioning system that allows their natural intelligence and ability to shine. To be successful, they need to develop the constellation of skills that are at the core of executive function.

What is executive functioning?

Executive functioning is the group of skills we need to perform a variety of daily activities including planning, organizing, time management, and integration of what we know into a plan of action. This term refers to a set of mental processes that connect past experience with present action. The ability to self-regulate and manage oneself to achieve goals is the essence of executive functioning.

What are the ways in which executive functioning impacts learning?

  • Planning (short- and long-term)
  • Keeping track of time
  • Finishing work on time
  • Staying organized
  • Multi-tasking
  • Seeking help or more information when needed
  • Integrating prior knowledge into work or discussions
  • “Shifting gears” and self-correcting while engaged in tasks such as reading, writing, or simply thinking
  • Self-reflection and evaluation while working
  • Working cooperatively with others

How can problems with executive functioning be identified?

A variety of tests are utilized by a team of evaluators, which may include educators, psychologists, speech/language therapists, and other professionals. Observation of learning behavior patterns and effective teaching strategies are key to identifying executive functioning problems. It is important to note that difficulty with executive functioning may occur despite high intelligence and strong language ability.

Four subtypes of executive functioning:

  • Material-spatial disorganization – tendency to lose or misplace things; difficulty bringing home or returning assignments in a timely way
  • Temporal-sequential disorganization – confusion about time and sequencing of tasks; procrastination; difficulty estimating how long a task will take to complete
  • Transitional disorganization – difficulty shifting gears smoothly, often resulting in rushing from one activity to the next; difficulty settling down to work or preparing to leave for school
  • Prospective retrieval disorganization – difficulty remembering to do something that has been planned in advance, such as forgetting the deadline of a project until the night before it is due

What are the ways in which executive functioning problems may be manifested?

  • Difficulty with planning and organization
  • Difficulty initiating activities or generating ideas independently
  • Problem determining the sequence of steps needed to achieve a goal
  • Problem completing a series of steps in an organized way
  • Difficulty receiving feedback or suggestions
  • Difficulty with self-evaluation
  • Difficulty with mental strategies involved in memorization or retrieving information from memory
  • Problems retaining specific information (such as remembering a phone number) while engaging in a related task (dialing the number)

Strategies to Help Build Executive Functioning Skills:

Time management:

  • Create checklists and to-do lists with estimated expected time frame
  • “Chunk” assignments into manageable segments with time frame for completion
  • Utilize visual calendars and reminders to keep track of assignments and due dates
  • Establish routines

Management of work space and materials:

  • Minimize clutter
  • Organize work space with clearly labeled materials
  • Color-code materials with subject matter
  • Utilize checklists that sequence tasks clearly

General strategies:

  • Use tools such as phone/computer organizer apps or watches with alarms
  • Use visual organizational aids
  • Plan and structure transition times and shifts in activities
  • Ask for written directions when possible to accompany oral instructions
  • Use memory aids such as mnemonics or acronyms

Here is an alternative ending to our earlier scenario utilizing some of the suggested strategies:

As high schooler Maria begins her research project after school, she receives a text from her friend who wants to chat. After a quick glance over the schedule she created earlier, Maria texts her friend back to let her know that although she’s not free now, she will be able to talk after 6:00. Maria returns to her assignment calmer and more confident that she will be able to complete her work without sacrificing her social life. When her phone alarm beeps with a reminder to take out dinner from the freezer, Maria is able to do this with minimal interruption from her work. As the afternoon draws to a close, Maria has a calm, confident sense of accomplishment as she checks off the items on her to-do list and rewards herself with some well-earned social media time.

While there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to building executive functioning skills, the most successful outcomes will usually include a combination of strategies similar to those outlined above. It may be helpful to ask for input from the student’s teachers, physician, or other relevant professionals in the spirit of a true team approach to creatively addressing learning differences. The ultimate goal of developing executive functioning skills is to enable each individual to perform at his or her highest potential with as much independence and creativity as possible, for challenges both academic and beyond.

Picture of Jay B.

Jay B.

Jay Bacrania is the CEO of Signet Education. As a high schooler, Jay won awards for chemistry at the state level in his home state of Florida, and at Harvard, he initially studied physics. After graduating, Jay spent two years studying jazz trumpet at the Berklee College of Music.

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