Tips for Teachers and Classroom Resources

Executive Functioning Strategies for Children to Thrive School

By The Editorial Team

While exact definitions vary, “executive functioning” or “EF” generally refers to the cognitive ability a person has to engage in problem-solving and goal-oriented behaviors. EF can embody any or all of the following: the ability to identify a problem, develop a solution, create a plan, the ability to execute the plan, a good attention span, flexibility, the ability to set goals and follow through to success, a good usage of working memory, adequate self-evaluation and self-monitoring.

It has recently been recommended that even children in early elementary grades should start developing executive functioning  for maximum success. Teachers can assist students in doing so in a variety of ways, including by assigning lengthy reading and writing assignments as well as by having students engage with and complete ongoing, long-term projects.

In today’s increasingly complex and technology reliant society, students can benefit greatly from developing their executive functioning as early as possible. EF strategies and the ability to coordinate multiple facets of a task at once are very valuable in today’s society, economy and workforce. EF offers the development of sub-skills for performing tasks such as looking for information on the internet and via a variety of sources of media.

Executive functioning strategies for children

While EF strategies are very often taught in small groups or one-on-one settings effectively, some experts now are recommending that children should be taught executive functioning techniques and strategies during their regular, general education classes. With an early start and a more prolonged exposure, students are able to better plan, prioritize, organize and use their short term or working memory more effectively. This in turn helps them to become more efficient and more successful in every other area of their education. Their self-esteem rises and all of their efforts naturally become more goal-oriented.

All of the students in a classroom ultimately benefit from learning executive functioning strategies, and for some students it is crucial to spend extra time developing them. Developmentally or emotionally challenged students can especially benefit from these skills, and the whole class enjoys fewer disruptions. There is more and more of a push for embedding executive strategies within the regular curriculum of all students, and the rewards of these changes are increasingly evident.

The main EF strategies currently come from the Benchmark model, the Kansas intervention model and Drive to Thrive. All of these strategies share some common core principles

  • EF instruction should be linked directly to the class curriculum
  • Extensive practice and teacher modeling should be employed
  • There should be an emphasis on student effort and motivation
  • EF strategies should ideally be taught in a systematic, structured way
  • Remember to allow some room for customized instruction for individual students

Tip: One effective method is to teach one EF strategy per week so that the children can really focus on each teaching. Encourage student engagement and the discussion of each strategy.

Executive functioning strategy suggestions

  • Lists: Encourage the use of lists, including “how to” lists and checklists.
  • Chunking tasks: Have students break long assignments down into chunks.
  • Time management: Encourage the use of calendars and other time organizers.
  • Mnemonic devices: Introduce mnemonic devices and remind students to use them as needed.
  • Organized note-taking: Encourage a logical approach to organizing new information.
  • Acronyms: Use acronyms to help students with memorizing new information.
  • Jokes and riddles: Cognitive flexibility can be strengthened by using riddles and jokes to help with comprehension.
  • Prioritizing information: Encourage students to look for cues as to what is most important about an assignment or task.
  • Self-checking: Provide checklists for assignments, and also help students to learn how to develop their own.
  • Self-monitoring: Encourage students to become aware of both their strengths and their weaker areas so that they can implement personal strategies for success.

Difficulties in executive functioning can have long-range consequences for children. The effects of EF impairment can include a hampered ability to organize materials, manage time, plan and implement long-term projects or stick to academic goals such as reading a long book or completing a term paper. EF impairment can make it difficult for students to complete or even begin a task. The value of effective executive functioning strategies is clear; executive functioning strategies for children are useful in both their overall development and long-term success.

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