About six years into my career as a special educator, I attended a child’s study meeting. In this meeting, my 9th-grade student's mother encouraged the team to focus on the student's executive functioning.
Executive functioning? I remember thinking. What is that? I didn’t even know if we taught executive functioning, let alone how to begin supporting it.
Key takeaways of this article:
Through the power of Google, I learned that executive functioning describes a group of skills that educators encounter every day, such as:
I realized how important executive functioning skills were for my students by looking at this list. I remember thinking, “My students must have executive functioning skills so that they can take their learning to a deeper level; these are the 'how-to-be learner skills.’”
These skills were the foundation of my students’ learning. How can a student learn if they don’t know how to be a learner?
In the years to follow the realization above, I began hearing more about executive dysfunction or executive functioning disorder through a special education lens. As a learning disability specialist, my job was to ensure Individual Education Plans included goals and services related to executive functioning skills.
But this path was missing something essential. Through a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS), the goal is to provide proactive support for all students when they need it. So, why do we wait until the student receives a special education referral to support skills needed to be a student?
The answer? We don’t.
We are not born with executive functioning skills. Executive functions are learned at various developmental stages in our lives through various experiences. oftentimes through experiences in school that we provide! Yet, executive functioning does not receive quality attention in teacher preparatory programs.
So, in order to provide opportunities to teach executive functioning skills, we may need to do a little bit of learning ourselves! I realized that if we were better able to identify what executive functioning looks like, we could incorporate activities, tasks, and questions that help grow our students' executive functioning skills to be prepared, flexible, lifelong learners throughout Tier 1 Instruction.
Let’s take a look at what executive functioning is and how we can incorporate these skills throughout our Tier 1 instruction.
Psychologists, neuroscientists, and board-certified behavior analysts have studied and mapped brain development and executive functioning (EF) cognitive processes through various models for decades.1
In simplest terms, executive functions comprise every step our brains take to manage and sort information, make decisions, and plan.
Let’s pause for a disclaimer: I am not a neuroscientist, psychologist, or behavior analyst.
I am, however, an educator. As such, I have spent years learning about executive functioning for students and how it applies to education. We may not know the full scientific understanding of executive functioning (I’ll give a nod to our science teachers out there). Still, we’re aware of the signs of executive functioning skills in our classrooms every day.
Let’s look at some examples of executive functioning skills being employed in the classroom:
These examples represent the seven core executive functions. Without them, students may act impulsively, struggle to begin or finish tasks, have trouble controlling their emotions, or seem to not be listening or putting forth effort.
We know how disruptive these behaviors are to a classroom and our student’s learning. It’s essential that we provide opportunities to help students develop and regulate their executive functioning skills.
Our brains are complex machines that constantly build connections or pathways that allow one part to signal or talk to another part of the brain.
For example, we learn from an early age that a stovetop is hot. Our brain can signal our hand not to touch the top of the stove to avoid a burn.
Executive functioning skills develop in the prefrontal cortex. That is a region of the brain that creates the connections resulting from our learning and experiences. The connections begin in infancy and increase as we move through adolescence and into adulthood. During the process, we establish our core capabilities, also known as our executive functioning skills.
While that sounds awfully scientific, the reality is that we can do so much to help our students grow and build their own executive functioning skills. It’s not neuroscience! Well, it is, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do it.
At key developmental stages, we can provide opportunities and experiences that allow students to develop connections within their brains in a safe, supportive environment. As students learn to employ executive functioning skills, they can work toward independently applying these skills when faced with similar experiences.
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Just like exercising any other muscle of the body, the more we exercise our brain connections, the stronger our executive functioning skills become! Through routine and modeling, we can aid our students in building these skills and employing them in their daily lives.
Some important facts to remember are:
Learners of ALL ages benefit from executive functioning skill practice.
Since we build connections in our brain from experiences, our brains are continuously growing and developing these skills. As our students get older and enter adolescence, they enter a period of growth where their brains strengthen their most-used connections. This makes their brains faster and more efficient—like the expressway on the highway.3
That means executive functioning skill learning is not just for elementary. These skills can be applied for all ages, and there is no set timeline for when each student will reach independence with their executive functioning skills.
Since the global pandemic has interrupted our regular school activities, our students have not had the same exposure to learning activities and school environments where they develop essential executive functioning skills.
Continual exposure to stress, like the effects of the pandemic, causes our brains to develop fast, impulsive connections due to a survival mentality. If these connections happen more frequently than the positive connections that form executive functions (such as flexible thinking, planning, and organizing), they take over the student’s response system.
While our students may be resilient, this prolonged stress has an impact. Now more than ever, we must understand executive functioning skills for students, and provide a space for our students to exercise and learn these skills every day in our classrooms.
All teachers can incorporate experiences and opportunities for students to practice executive functioning skills safely within our classrooms.
A Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) is a prevention-based framework that supports students’ academic, social-emotional, and behavioral instruction and interventions in a layered continuum. This means that we provide support to all students when they need it—including academic, behavioral, and SEL interventions.
During core instruction, also known as Tier 1 instruction, teachers provide differentiated strategies to meet all of the documented areas of strength and needs of the entire class. These differentiated strategies include providing strategies to teach our students how to be students.
Opportunities to practice executive functioning skills exist in almost every lesson and activity.4
Assigning homework, taking notes, completing projects, field trips, or participating in extracurricular activities are all opportunities we can use to scaffold supports for our students.
So, how do we teach executive functioning skills to students? As we plan for executive functioning skills, here are a few evidence-based executive functioning strategies to utilize in our core instruction:
Executive Functioning Skills Targeted: Planning Ahead, Focus, Flexibility
Let’s pretend that we just assigned a big test in our class.
In this scenario, a student may choose between attending a sporting event with friends or studying for this test.
We can help support this student in their executive functioning by discussing and thinking through possible solutions to this challenge. Together, the class may help identify times before the sporting event that the student could use to study. Or classes could create collaborative solutions, such as creating study groups with friends to include needed social and study time.
We might also propose to the class that the student attends the event and doesn’t study. What are the consequences of this action? How can we avoid these consequences?
By allowing students the opportunity to work through real scenarios and options, students build strong connections to plan, focus on the essential tasks, and have flexible thinking.
Executive Functioning Skills Targeted: Organizing, Planning, Self-Monitoring
Students of all ages can engage in self-directed goal setting with supports and scaffolds.
To help facilitate this action, we can help our students set goals. After they have set the goal, we can help them with goal milestones. These milestones will help them determine if they are on track to meeting that goal (similar to how we measure progress in intervention plans).
To take it a step further, we can have students map out how they will handle obstacles that may arise while attaining that goal. We provide students with a solid goal-setting foundation by explicitly teaching each of these steps.
With this support, students can begin to develop agency to think long-term and practice goal-directed behavior independently.
➡️ Check out: Top 10 Student Engagement Practices For Tier 1 in MTSS
Executive Functioning Skills Targeted: Self-control, Awareness, Flexibility
Self-control is a big skill when it comes to classroom behavior.
To support this executive functioning skill, we can look at how our classrooms are designed to support positive behavior and encourage flexibility.
Restorative classrooms are a cornerstone in building and supporting empathy in students. Within restorative environments, students feel safe to share challenges and barriers they may be experiencing. This environment also supports all students in problem-solving when a negative situation occurs.
To create a restorative classroom, it’s important to provide a space for students to develop empathy and awareness for themselves and those around them. This is especially important when a student is facing the repercussions of their actions.
Restorative conferences and restorative circles allow learners to understand others' points of view and are a great strategy to facilitate empathy and awareness. As students participate in the restorative framework, they become aware of others' stressors.
This awareness and empathy leads to more thoughtful decision-making, diffuses anger and frustration, and allows students to be solution-focused.
Executive Functioning Skills Targeted: Awareness, Self-Control, Planning Ahead
Positive Behavior Support Systems (PBIS) are much more than reward programs for good behavior. While a PBIS system should be effectively implemented as a school-wide program, classroom teachers can also incorporate components of PBIS within their classrooms.
One of the ten benchmarks of a quality PBIS system is classroom behavioral instruction.5 Classroom behavioral instruction includes teaching students appropriate behaviors or responses to triggers or adverse interactions.
This is an excellent opportunity to practice executive functioning. When students identify what or why they are upset, they can plan better reactions or develop alternative coping strategies to avoid triggers.
We can also provide scaffolded support to aid students in building these executive functioning skills. For example, reminders, warnings, and positive reinforcement can redirect and encourage students as they learn to employ positive skills, such as self-awareness, self-control, and planning ahead.
This is especially important to help students tackle rigorous classroom instruction and activities.
All of the skills we teach our students help them transition toward independence. But, executive functioning skills aren't just for school! By teaching executive functioning skills in the classroom, we help our students prepare to be productive community members and colleagues.
As a refresher, here are some key takeaways:
Finally, remember that we can create an environment that promotes health, safety, and trust within our classrooms. While stress may come from school or a pandemic, there are more likely causes beyond our control. We can control our classroom environments, however. When students feel safe, they can practice building their cognitive capacities to override their fight or flight responses.
While we cannot be with our students all the time to teach them how to react, we can help them build the skills that they need to be smart, autonomous decision-makers and learners.
➡️ Supporting our Tier 1 Students: Best Practices of Data Analysis and Differentiated Instruction for Educational Leadership
1 Blair C, Razza RP. March 2007. Relating effortful control, executive function, and false-belief understanding to emerging math and literacy ability in kindergarten. Child Development, 2007;78 pp. 647–63, accessed March 2022 at https://research.steinhardt.nyu.edu/scmsAdmin/uploads/001/749/2%20CDev%20Blair%20Razza.pdf
2 Cooper-Kahn, Joyce and Dietzel, Laurie.(n.d.) What is executive functioning? What Is Executive Functioning? | LD Topics | LD OnLine. (n.d.). Retrieved March 8, 2022, from http://www.ldonline.org/article/29122/
3 Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. (2019, February 22). A guide to executive function. Retrieved March 8, 2022, from https://developingchild.harvard.edu/guide/a-guide-to-executive-function/
4 Building the core skills youth need for life. (n.d.). Retrieved March 9, 2022, from https://46y5eh11fhgw3ve3ytpwxt9r-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/HCDC_BuildingAdolescentCoreLifeSkills.pdf
5 Kincaid, D., Childs, K., George, H. (March, 2010). Schoolwide Benchmarks of Quality (Revised).
McCalla, Angie MS, CCC-SLP. (2021, August 13). Executive functioning - where is it controlled and how does it develop? / remediation techniques for deficits and dysfunction. Rainbow Rehabilitation. Retrieved March 14, 2022, from https://www.rainbowrehab.com/executive-functioning/
Understood Team. (2021, October 26). What is executive function? Understood. Retrieved March 14, 2022, from https://www.understood.org/articles/en/what-is-executive-function
Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2011). Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function: Working Paper No. 11. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu.
Suggested citation: Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2014). Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu.
Brittany Shurley is the Director of Professional Services at Branching Minds. Brittany has served students, educators, and leaders in various roles throughout her career including as a classroom teacher, learning disabilities specialist, school-based leader, and district level administrator. Brittany has extensive experience in facilitating the implementation of an MTSS at the district and school levels. She is passionate about ensuring teachers have the tools to promote safe, healthy, and engaging learning environments where students are experiencing success.