According to LD Online, the formal definition of executive functioning is “a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation.”

The skills that comprise executive functioning are not definitively agreed upon by educators and researchers. Psychologists Gerard A. Gioia, Peter K. Isquith, Steven C. Guy, and Lauren Kenworthy have identified, through their own research, a proposed list of executive functioning skills.

These skills include inhibition (the ability to self-regulate when presented with distractions such as YouTube, Facebook, etc.), shift (ability to be mentally flexible in unpredictable situations), emotional control, initiation (getting started and not procrastinating), working memory, planning/organization, organization of materials, and self-monitoring (similar to self-awareness).

What are Executive Functioning Skills?

Executive functioning skills (EF), located in the brain’s pre-frontal cortex, help direct and control other brain functions and movements that lead to academic and personal success. Executive functioning (EF) skills have been compared to the conductor of an orchestra or the flight control tower at an airport. These skills will continue to develop until around the age of 25 when research in brain development has shown that the pre-frontal cortex reaches maturity.

In K-12 students, whose executive functioning skills are not yet fully developed, regulation of these skills often falls on parents and educators. These adults often function as the frontal lobe of the developing student’s brain and provide the needed external prompts, cues, and reminders to accomplish tasks, manage time, and stay organized.

However, when students transition from high school into higher education, the responsibility for executive functioning is shifted from parent/teacher onto the student. This shift in responsibility without proper preparation and support can have negative consequences for students’ transition to postsecondary education.

Executive functioning skills are the foundation of academic success in college, but similar to ‘soft skills’ in the workplace, are often not explicitly taught in secondary education. So what can parents and educators do to help support the executive functioning skill development of their students?

Recognizing the gap in EF skill development of incoming freshman, some universities embed EF language in freshman seminar courses or offer advising and coaching supports that focus on executive functioning skill development. These services can be helpful; however, they replace the role of the parent with another adult on campus (i.e. disability coach, advisor, etc.). This type of support, while well meaning, does not increase a student’s independence in managing their executive functioning.

However, there are many tools and smartphone apps available which allow student’s to be independent, responsible, and accountable for skill development in discreet and convenient ways.

Apps for Executive Functioning Skills

Because the smartphone market is flooded with thousands of apps, it can be confusing for parents and educators to discern which app will be the right match for their student. It may be helpful to first do an executive functioning skill assessment with students to determine their current level of EF strengths and weaknesses. Here is a worksheet with suggested assessment categories.

Technology and smartphone apps allow students to bring executive functioning tools with them into their classrooms and dorm rooms on campus. Below are 3 apps that are effective tools to help students improve their executive functioning skills:

Tool #1: 30/30

This app is perfect for visual learners or anyone who struggles with spending too much time on Facebook, YouTube, checking emails or other activities which can easily consume too much of your student’s time. The app allows you to pre-set a list of tasks and allocate the length of time that you want to spend on each activity. The app makes a sound when it is time to move on to the next task. But most impressive about this app is the visual component. You can color code each task, watch the timer count down, and see the list of tasks coming up next. This app is one of the best apps we have found which makes time “visual” and is great for both children and adults.

(Next page: 2 more apps for developing executive functioning skills)

Tool #2: Google Calendar, SaiSuke

One of the toughest relationships to establish in college isn’t friends and roommates, but a student’s relationship with their academic planner. For some students, writing in a book type planner is difficult particularly for those with poor handwriting. Planners can be intimidating and confusing and may be new to students who previously relied on teachers or parents for EF reminders.

Smartphone calendar apps are great tools to develop executive functioning skills. Apps like Google Calendar or SaiSuke allow students to create appointments and class schedules on their smartphone and take their schedule wherever they go. In addition, students can schedule an appointment to do homework for a sociology class and link the website and reading material in the message area of the appointment. This allows students to go to their calendar, use homework links, and begin working right away. Students can also share Google Calendar with others including parents, advisors, club leaders, coaches, etc. The connectivity of Google Calendar makes this app a solid substitute for the traditional planner.

Tool #3: Your Smartphone’s Alarm Reminders

Sometimes the best tool is the one you already own. Many smartphones and other devices contain standard features at no additional cost that can help develop executive functioning skills.

For students who struggle with working memory or organizing their thoughts, the alarm function on smartphones can be a powerful tool. Useful for both life skills and academic tasks, students can set an alarm as a reminder to meet with their professor or academic advisor, do laundry, or remember to take medication. Alarm reminders can be set for one time use or recurring appointments. This is an excellent tool which allows students to independently manage the many tasks of college life both inside and outside of the classroom.

About the Author:

Jennifer Sullivan, M.S. is an educator who has presented nationally on educational issues such as supporting students with disabilities, technology, social inequality and gender. Jennifer has worked in both K-12 and higher education settings supporting families and students with disabilities. @jshighered

Ron Samul, MFA is a college educator, writer, and mentor. He has presented at various conferences and writing events including the Northeast Popular Culture Association Conference (2016) and Hollihock Writers Conference in 2017.  He works with students in the area of short story, novel length fiction, and journalism. @ronsamulwriter