Can Executive Function Skills be a School-wide Focus?

October 23, 2018

I would be willing to contend that every teacher has had that moment when for some reason they were next to a student who opened their backpack and it was filled with handfuls of loose papers, maybe one notebook for all subjects, and sometimes an old snack at the bottom.

Or you may be able to easily think of those students in your class this year who don’t know when things are due, struggle to hit deadlines, spend half the independent work time in class doing other things, or generally wait until the last minute to get work done. These are some of the areas of Executive Functioning (EF) that children are developing at each stage of their lives. At every age we expect to see different levels of EF development and it’s the job of educators and schools to consider how we can help all children we work with to have the age-appropriate EF skills.

What Exactly are Executive Functions?  

Common areas of Executive Functioning relate to the following:

  • Flexibility
  • Working memory
  • Task initiation
  • Time management
  • Goal setting
  • Organization

Stemming from these EFs, the academic areas that I have often seen students struggle with if they have underdeveloped EF skills are things like: planning long-term assignments, making to-do lists (i.e. prioritizing), having an organizer, organizing their notebooks, goal setting and completing, and procrastination or unrealistic expectations relating to time needed to complete a task.

Many of these skills often relate directly to a student’s academic life, yet teachers don’t often directly teach these skills.  Many teachers feel that students should already have these skills, or maybe that their parents could help in this area.  There are also times teachers want to work with these EF skills, but find it hard to make time while working with other academic needs, English Language Learners, keeping up the pace with their partner teacher, etc. At the end of the day, students are in a position to do so much better when part of the school ethos leads to helping them with these skills in general, or when there is time in the day to work on these skills with students who are having specific difficulties.

How can this be done? 

This support begins with schools and classroom teachers; that is, what is the schoolwide expectation for what level of EF proficiency we expect students to have at a given grade level.  Grade teams and divisions should determine articulate what they want their students to be able to do, what they will do to help them learn and manage these skills, and what steps they will take if some students still are struggling.

Perhaps the 6th grade team decides that students must have some system for binder organization that works for each student.  Teachers make sure to put that expectation in the syllabus, they have time at the end of the class period so students can put papers away or correctly label and place digital docs in files, etc.  Then, if a student has trouble with this organization, the teacher may intervene with a scheduled binder check with the student once a week. If that doesn’t work, they may have to have a prescribed system such as an accordion binder.

Some students will already have the developmentally appropriate EF skills when they get to you class, or, with basic interventions you will hopefully be able to get the majority of students to a point where they are able to manage these EF areas adequately. But if you have students who are still having trouble and there are concerns from several teachers, the situation may call for a student success team to step in and identify more intensive interventions. This could be through counselor or other specialist support or a dedicated coach.

With our busy workload, it may be a challenge to find the time to support students with these needs, but with the rise of Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) and the subsequent use of interventions, I have seen more schools look at solutions like Flexible Modular Schedules  that allow students, teachers and specialists the flexibility to work on differentiation, general support for questions, extensions to the content, etc. Check out the video in the link above to see how one school outlined their day in a way that could address EFs for students who need support.

Call to Action  

Helping students develop these executive functions during a school year takes time – not just out of each day, but over weeks and months.  Through common classroom best practices to support these executive functions, and through looking at bringing our school schedules into the 21st Century with changes such as flex schedules, we will be laying the foundation for students to perform at the heights of their potential.

We are leaving the time where we casually lamented that our students were so disorganized, but we didn’t have systematic ways to combat it. We are slowly getting to a point where we no longer realize a student doesn’t understand the content once they fail the summative…or a grading period.

There are lots of reasons why students struggle and lots of ways that educators can support them, but working on developing every student’s executive functioning skills will get us to a point where we can more accurately see where they are and take them to the next level.

Beckett Haight, NBCT

Beckett Haight is a National Board Certified special educator who has been involved in Special Education non-stop as a student, a volunteer, an aide, and a teacher since 1994 when he got his first IEP. During this time he has worked with students with varying special needs in various schools in California, Dominican Republic, Kuwait, Ethiopia, and is currently providing learning support in an American school in Mexico. You can find him professionally on Twitter @BeckettHaight or blogging about Special Education topics at