Executive functions are a set of cognitive processes that help with decision making, achieving goals, planning, problem solving, organization, and controlling impulses. No one is born with these skills — you must learn them. During infancy, the foundation to build executive functioning skills is laid, with the most rapid development occurring between ages 3-5. There is another spike during a child’s adolescent and early adult years.
As an educator, you can provide support to help students build executive functioning skills so they can thrive academically and throughout the rest of their lives.
Why Building Strong Executive Skills Is Vital to Learning
Executive functioning skills are vital throughout life, beginning with early development and school achievement. These skills then influence everything from optimal health to positive behaviors. This set of mental skills include working memory, self-control, and flexible thinking.
While focusing on learning, executive functioning skills help students:
- Remember and follow multi-step directions
- Control impulsive, rash responses
- Adapt when rules change
- Avoid distractions
- Manage long-term assignments
- Problem solve and make better decisions
- Develop a sense of teamwork and leadership
- Think critically
- Create a plan of action
- Track and reflect on their progress
- Retain and store learned information
- Remain organized, especially in terms of time management
Helping students build these skills benefits everyone. As these skills strengthen, children and adolescents can plan and act in ways that make them good friends, students, and citizens. This then leads to more competent adults who can parent, hold employment, continue their educational journey, and stay involved within their community.
5 Ways to Help Improve Students’ Executive Functioning Skills
As an educator, it’s important to give students the tools they need to be successful. Helping students improve executive functioning skills allows them to grow as individuals and active members of society. Here are some suggestions to help students become flexible thinkers, better planners, and organizers.
1. Play interactive games
The key is to highlight key skills while students play. Pictionary is a great example. Students will need to plan what to draw, remain mindful of time management, and adapt when others aren’t guessing correctly.
Other options include:
- Scrabble for planning and organization
- Jenga for self-control, planning, and flexibility
- Soduku for working memory and perseverance
2. Incorporate a wide spectrum of activities into the curriculum
Regardless of what age group you’re targeting, there are many executive function activities — some of which are physical. Others focus more on strategy or creativity. It’s important to include a combination of these types of activities.
Research shows that cognitively engaging activities, such as team sports, may be linked to stronger students executive functioning skills. Organized sports help students hold complicated strategies in their minds while they monitor their own actions, as well as the actions of others. Many of these sports require quick decisions and flexibility.
Music and theater require students to develop their working memory, cognitive flexibility, and selective attention while managing their timing and behavior. For younger students, guessing games encourage the development of working memory and flexible thinking.
3. Encourage students to use planners
A student planner can help children and adolescents of all ages plan their time, set goals, and monitor their progress.
Introduce planners at the beginning of the year so that students can create positive habits that last the whole year. To support these habits, it’s important to refer to the students’ planners daily. Encourage students to leverage their planners to better prepare for the day ahead. Although these planners are often essential for those living with executive functioning deficits, they are beneficial for all students.
Although many schools require students to use planners, few teach them how to use them. Help students set goals and actively work towards them. This encourages the development of self-regulation. By teaching students to take personal initiative in planning, organizing, setting goals, and managing their time and workload, they will develop a sense of responsibility and control over their academic success. Self-regulatory behaviors develop gradually, over time, with repeated practice. Educators can help students practice these skills by offering a custom planner that is relevant to their specific grade level and curriculum.
4. Craft time
Encouraging creative expression helps students develop motor skills, literacy skills, self-esteem, and executive functioning skills. When a student starts a craft, they need to analyze the materials available. They must also plan and organize their actions, problem solve, be mentally flexible, and manage their time.
Art is fairly open-ended, which allows students to consider their options, make decisions, and then evaluate the results of the choices they made. While problem-solving, help students articulate any dilemmas they face. Listen to students, encouraging them to advocate for themselves. This will help them become more engaged learners.
5. Address time management with scaffolding
Many students struggle with time management. To support these individuals, instead of giving them a set deadline, break down the task into smaller tasks. When you announce time constraints for each step, this can help students learn to utilize their time more productively. For example, instead of saying you have 20 minutes to complete this writing exercise, you can say, “spend…”
- 3 minutes brainstorming your idea
- 5 minutes creating an outline
- 8 minutes writing
- 4 minutes editing and finalizing
Remember, all students learn differently — they also have their own strengths and weaknesses. That is why you’re encouraged to incorporate a variety of strategies to help children of varying ages develop executive functioning skills.