Executive Functioning: 4 Tricks to Improve Student Learning

April 27, 2018

Brooke McGuire

Ed.D. in Leadership


Every year, I find myself working with students who have been taught information, but they just don’t remember it. Or students who I can predict will need a third copy of that assignment. Or a student who forgot to do his or her homework – again.

Clearly, something is missing and that “something” is executive functioning skills. 

Skills like organization, task initiation, working memory, planning and prioritization are necessary in order for kids to become successful students and adults. And, just as some students struggle in a particular content area, some students struggle with these executive functioning skills.

These students need additional instruction, interventions, scaffolds – any support you would provide to a child struggling in a subject area – to develop these skills. Below are some tips and resources to start thinking about how to build this support into your classroom. (Remember: You’ll want to explicitly teach these skills, and incorporate them as authentically as possible on a daily basis.)

Here’s how to get started.

1. Teach organizational tools to improve executive functioning.

Use both physical and mental organizational tools. Physical organizational tools can help students process information and make the content easier to understand. Think color-coded folders and notebooks, and accordion folders or binders.

Encourage highlighting, leaning on helpful highlighting tips, and use planners, making sure to teach students how to use them. 

If traditional planners don’t seem to work with a student, consider alternatives like an online planner or app. (Try Google Keep, My Study Life or myHomework.)

2. Share techniques to help students concentrate.

Teach students methods to help them focus on a task and how to practice active listening. At our school, we use Top 20’s concept of “parking” distracting thoughts in the mental parking lot. Use the gradual release of responsibility to help students become more independent with these strategies.

In addition, don’t underestimate the power of modeling and role playing so they can observe multiple responses to various situations.

3. Break up big assignments to prevent executive functioning struggles.

Chunk material into manageable sections to help reduce anxiety. Unless the focus is following multi-step directions, provide students with only the information necessary to complete a task. Use a timer, and provide allotted times for directions, tasks or activities.

 4. Assist the development of executive functioning skills by going digital.

Post a copy of assignments and resources in your learning management system or on a website. This will help students become more independent by providing them with access to anything they might need.

As with any strategy, what works for one student may not be as effective with another student. I recommend starting with a very honest and open conversation with students about distractions and how to manage them. Keep in mind that these strategies may look different because the needs of every group are different. It’s about finding out what works for each student.

Try different tools to determine which are most helpful in terms of modifying less desirable behaviors and encouraging positive actions. With intentional, explicit and continuous instruction, you can help your kids re-train their brains to develop new behaviors that will help them become successful students.

For more resources and additional information, check out these executive functioning strategies and resources for professionals.

Learn even more strategies for differentiation and student support by earning a M.Ed. in Special Education or M.Ed. in Instructional Design and Technology from American College of Education.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of American College of Education.
Brooke McGuire
Brooke McGuire, Ed.D. in Leadership

Brooke has taught in a variety of settings, working everything from a service-learning summer program geared toward incoming first graders to a high school program for struggling readers. She's currently the director of teaching and learning at her district.

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