Teaching Tips to Improve Executive Functioning Skills in the Classroom

Executive Function isn’t a widely known term, but it includes common skills that are necessary for children to learn, grow, and thrive in a classroom setting. They include a host of important cognitive and emotional skills that include: 

● Planning, organizing, and monitoring tasks 
● Effective time management 
● Problem solving 
● Working memory 
● Attention and concentration 
● Multitasking 
● Self-awareness 
● Emotional control 
● Empathy 

While this may seem like a broad list of skills, many experts agree they can essentially be distilled into three categories: working memory (our ability to recall and apply the information we learn); flexible thinking (our ability to see a problem from multiple angles); and self-control (our ability to ignore the many distractions we face everyday and stay focused). 

Why Do Children Have Trouble with Executive Function Skills? 

One important clarification is that executive functioning is not a clinical diagnosis. However, many children that present with other conditions may have trouble with these. Challenges are common among children with ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, or a communication disorder such as delayed speech or a language disorder

Tips to Help Children Improve Their Executive Functioning 

Create Checklists 

If you’re like me, few things in life are as satisfying as crossing a task off your “to-do” list. Oftentimes, children have trouble focusing or completing more complex assignments simply because they don’t know where to start or what to prioritize. Creating a checklist of clear expectations you have for your students, and breaking them down into smaller, achievable tasks, can help students feel satisfied and motivated. Make children regularly refer to this list, and keep it in a place easily accessible. 

Clear Instructions 

As educators, we’re experts in breaking down complicated concepts into something more bite-sized and digestible. This is especially important for children that have trouble with executive function skills. For these children, they may be more prone to misinterpreting instructions, which can cause confusion and an overall lack of inspiration. One helpful tip is not just to provide directions, but have students repeat them back to you so you can ensure comprehension. One additional tip is to reinforce not just “what” students need to do, but make it clear “why” they need to happen. For example, “you need to learn these new vocabulary words so you can finish the book report.” 

 Reward Good Behavior 

 While we don’t want to bribe children, for those that struggle with concentration, or completing assignments, or multitasking, it’s important that they experience praise and adulation when they do a great job. This can be as simple as acknowledging their achievement and helping them see the fruits of their labor. Creating a reward system with clear expectations won’t just help students in the classroom, but will build strong habits that will benefit them for a lifetime. 

Break Down Bigger Projects into Simpler Tasks 

The feeling of being overwhelmed can stop students in their tracks. For example, completing a book report is actually a series of smaller tasks: reading the book, taking notes, organizing their thoughts, outlining their report, and completing the assignment. Use a simple “first... then” cadence when distilling complicated projects into smaller goals. 

Professional Help

As educators, we have a responsibility to identify red flags in the classroom that could be signs of larger issues. As mentioned, many difficulties with executive functioning stem from a child’s ability to effectively communicate. They must be able to clearly articulate their thoughts and feelings (expressive language), as well as understand and process information and ideas (receptive language).

Therefore, many of these students require speech and language support. Recommending help from a certified speech-language pathologist (also known as a speech therapist) is a great place to start. While many students are offered speech therapy in school, others receive personalized, one-on-one instruction from a dedicated speech therapist for added supplemental care. 

In the time of COVID-19, many families have increasingly been turning to online speech therapy. Teletherapy is the same as in-person care, except instead of a speech therapist sitting face-to-face with the student across the table, they sit face-to-face with the student using a video screen.

One major benefit of online speech therapy, in addition to typically being more affordable and convenient for families, is that parents can be more engaged throughout their child’s care. They can schedule sessions around school and work hours, sit alongside their child during therapy, and have a greater level of involvement in applying learnings at home. Therefore, parents can more easily work with teachers on sharing knowledge, identifying strengths and setbacks, and applying skills to a child’s educational curriculum and day-to-day life.

About Leanne Sherred, M.S. CCC-SLP: Leanne calls Austin, Texas home but studied Speech and Hearing Sciences at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and gained her Master's in Speech-language pathology from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. She has worked in pediatric outpatient clinics, schools, early intervention, and home health. Leanne is currently the President and Founder of Expressable online speech therapy, a company that envisions a modern and affordable way for anyone who needs speech therapy to access these vital services. You can check out her blog here.

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