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executive function skills

How to address executive function skills in the classroom—and why you should

The key to student achievement may lie in first developing a set of cognitive processes that enable students to manage information and complete tasks.

No matter what subject or topic an educator is teaching, sometimes the best way we can approach an instructional challenge is by taking a step back to look at the big picture of learning. In order to learn skills such as sentence fluency or multiplication, students need to develop the brain functions that will first enable them to focus on tasks and retain information.

For the past several years my district has emphasized the importance of helping students improve a set of thinking skills known as executive function skills. These functions are a set of cognitive processes, such as focus, memory and self-control, which enable us to manage information and complete tasks.

To start an initiative to improve executive function among students, districts first need to prepare teachers. With professional development opportunities, teachers can learn about brain sciences and how students learn and develop executive function skills during their K-12 education and beyond. Districts must inform teachers about how to recognize students who struggle with executive weakness, and what strategies can assist students in developing these skills.

Knowing Cognitive Capacities

In order for teachers to target specific executive function skills, they must first be able to identify them. Our teachers work with the below list of skills, which is in part informed by C8 Sciences’ list of Core Cognitive Capacities.

  • Impulse control
  • Sustained attention
  • Task Initiation and Self Monitoring
  • Cognitive Flexibility
  • Sustained Attention
  • Working Memory
  • Organization and Planning

Teachers then need to reflect on how these items manifest in the classroom. For example, if a student has been in class for ten minutes and still does not have the materials out that they need, this can be a sign of task initiation weakness. Once the teacher recognizes a student needs to work on task initiation, they can develop a list of strategies to address this learning problem.

(Next page: Tools and exercises for building executive function skills)

Tools for Executive Function Skills

There are a number of tools educators can use to assess students’ executive function skills. A teacher’s anecdotal notes about students’ learning behaviors and patterns can be extremely informative of brain functions. Additionally, a student’s response to a thinking intervention or strategy used in the classroom is indicative of their cognitive abilities. Checklists, formal evaluations and scenario charts are effective resources to help teachers organize classroom brain training practices.

When pushing for more focus on executive function skills, it’s important to recognize that the same strategy won’t work for each student. Some students work better with visual cues than verbal cues, for instance. Teachers must differentiate thinking strategies for each student to help them meet full learning potential.

Exercises for Executive Function Skills

There are an endless number of exercises to help students develop thinking skills. Practices can range from computer games to improve memory skills to physical tasks such as balancing. Here are just a few examples of how teachers in our district have worked with students to improve their executive function skills.

Impulse Control

Use breathing exercise to show students how to pause and take control of their body and brain. With younger students, we have used “breathing buddies” to improve impulse control. Each student has a stuffed animal and lies on the ground, breathing in and out while watching the toy rise and fall on their chest. It can be helpful for older students to simply go in the hall and concentrate on their breathing before re-entering the classroom.

Sustained Attention

Students’ emotions often interfere with their ability to sustain attention. Teachers in our district use what we call a “meta box” with fidgets to help students refocus and direct their attention to the task at hand. Sensory fidgets can include stress balls, play putty, visual timers and more. Students can either use them during class time or out in the hall for a short time before returning to the learning task.

Organization and Planning

As an adult, it’s easy to forget that planning and organizing your day is a learned skill. Teachers can equip students to master these tasks by setting up routines for entering and exiting the classroom. For example, identify and number stations for students to retrieve their binders and assignment sheets. Actual photos of the students completing these tasks can help them visualize themselves executing their daily routines.

When it comes to improving executive function skills during the school day, a step in the right direction is to set up time and programs that are devoted to these strategies. It can take as little as five minutes before class or a full 30-minute session.

Start talking to your students about how their brain functions when learning. As students begin to take a metacognitive approach towards learning, they will recognize and appreciate their own improvement in control, focus and memory.

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