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Supporting Students with Executive Functioning

For those of you back in school, welcome! For those who aren't, I hope you are enjoying your last few days of summer. This Fall, regardless of which age you teach, you will probably have students that struggle with executive functioning.

Executive functioning is the management of cognitive processes.

There are three types of brain functions that are related to executive function, these are your working memory, mental flexibility and your self control. These functions need to not only work independently, but since they are interrelated, they also need to work together. It is important to note, that any student could struggle with executive functioning, not just those with special needs.

Working memory is the ability to retain and use information. This is often used when having to follow instructions or concentrating on a task at hand. Your working memory is usually used over a short period of time. For example, in the beginning of class, you might ask the students to hand in their homework in a basket, pick up another sheet of paper, read pages 3-5 in a book and then answer a question from the board. This might be easy for some students, however, if one struggles with working memory, they might not be able to follow all of the steps. Therefore, it would be help the student if the teacher wrote a list with the directions on the board, or, even better if they had the directions on the student’s desk so they can cross them out as they go.

Cognitive flexibility is the ability to switch and adapt between tasks and thinking without becoming overwhelmed. For example, a teacher designed a lesson where the students have to move through variety of stations independently. After creating the lesson, the teacher reflects on her classes, and realized that in one period, she has several students that struggle with cognitive flexibility. Therefore, instead of allowing the students to more freely through the stations, she decided to put them in groups, and instead of having the students move between stations, she will rotate the materials. Therefore, this will cut down on distractions between each round, and since the students are working as a group, it will maintain some continuity. She will also display a timer on the board for each round in order to help students stay focused and on task.

Self control is the ability to resist impulses. We often see this in classes when students are calling out or talking out of turn.

In case you are wondering if you have students that struggle with executive functioning, here is a list of possible scenarios to help identify them:

  • They lose their train of thought

  • Needs directions several times

  • Struggles to make decisions

  • Has difficulty switching between tasks

  • Has difficulty starting a task

  • Struggles to remember information

  • Struggles to differentiate from a set plan or think on the spot

  • Is impulsive

  • Struggles to control their emotions

As you can see, most of these scenarios relate to either the working memory, cognitive functioning or self regulating.

While the working memory, mental flexibility and your self control are the three main part os executive functioning, each can be divided into several smaller sub categories. For each of the scenarios below, there are possible strategies to help the students that struggle with each issue.


Students might have papers scattered throughout their desk book bag and locker. They are unable to keep or find work.

  • Give students a packet with their work that is clearly labeled with each section.

  • Color-code paper handouts

  • Color-code folders for classes/homework/work completed

  • Post the agenda


Students might have difficulty remembering information and directions

  • Have directions posted so the students can read them as well as hear them verbally

  • Create a one page “review/recap” for each week/unit

  • Review what was taught the previous day in the beginning of the lesson

  • Recap the day’s lesson/objective at the end of each lesson in the exit ticket

Self-regulating (impulses)

Students might over-react either verbally, physically or emotionally. Students are not capable of controlling themselves

  • Use proximity to answer students questions and calm any anxieties

  • Have steps in place for students that might over-react or become anxious (1. Re-read the steps, 2. Ask a friend, 3. Ask a teacher) Tape these steps to their desk for reference

  • Create a “points” or positive behavior system

Planning and preparation

Students might struggle with knowing what is the most important aspect of a task/project. Students cannot see the “big picture” or b able to break the task down into smaller pieces.

  • Break the task down into smaller sections and tasks

  • List the instructions/directions

  • Create a checklist

  • Have students identify the goal or most important aspect of the activity


Students struggle with starting or ending tasks. They might become sidetracked or “lost.”

  • Write the agenda on the board and on the students’ desk/worksheet so they know what to expect

  • Give students all of their classwork in a “work plan” so they do not have to go through multiple papers, notebooks or folders

  • Have everything clearly labeled for each park of the lesson with a place for the students to write (Do Now, reading, think-pair share, exit ticket etc)

If you want this list and the strategies in PDF form, feel free to download it here.

If you have a strategy or idea for our next blog or are interested in writing a blog post for us, message us at:

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