Integrating essential executive function (EF) skills

What is executive function? And how does it affect learning?

Executive function (EF) is a term used to describe a set of mental processes that helps us connect past experience with present action. Every day, each of us uses executive function skills in activities that require planning, decision making, strategizing, troubleshooting, managing our emotions, paying attention, keeping “on-task” and remembering details. Additionally, executive function skills are what enable students to:

  • keep track of time and remember during exams
  • engage in group discussions
  • finish their work on time and remember to hand it in
  • ask for help when needed
  • wait to speak until called on
  • make corrections while reading and writing
  • think critically

Many children with ADHD or other learning diferences have executive function deficits. However, anyone can have challenges with executive function. Although there is no single test or assessment that can identify an EF deficit, an evaluation by a knowledgeable psychologist, psychiatrist or developmental pediatrician can determine if your child has executive dysfunction. There are many strategies that a child with EF deficits can learn in order to set out on a more successful academic and life path.

“The brain continues to mature and develop connections well into adulthood, and a person’s executive function abilities are shaped by both physical changes in the brain and by life experiences, in the classroom and in the world at large. Early attention to developing efficient skills in this area can be very helpful, and as a rule, direct instruction, frequent reassurance and explicit feedback are strongly recommended.” 


Signs that your child may have problems with executive function:

  • chronic disorganization
  • challenges in reading comprehension and/or math
  • difficulty with note-taking (including hearing and/or identifying main idea & important details)
  • difficulty with multi-step directions
  • often loses track of time
  • trouble with generating ideas independently
  • ongoing problems with the writing process (including organizing thoughts, developing sentences or paragraphs, creating a cohesive paper inclusive of important facts & details)
  • challenges with estimating the amount of time a task will take (such as daily homework or a long-term project)
  • difficulty with memorizing facts
  • struggles with retelling a story or event; may not be able to communicate details in an organized, sequential manner
  • experiences frustration with recalling information
  • trouble with initiating activities or tasks
  • difficulty retaining information while doing something with it (remembering instructions during an exam, for example)
  • habitually loses or misplaces belongings, forgets to bring necessary books, etc. home from school, or forgets to turn in homework
  • becomes agitated when forced to “switch gears” to another subject or activity

Helping children obtain and master EF skills

At The Jones-Gordon School, one of our primary goals is to teach students to plan, prioritize and organize efficiently and effectively. We aim to prepare children for success not only academically, but for life!

According to Dr. Lynn Meltzer, leading executive function expert,

Some students acquire the necessary organizational skills to become successful, independent learners quickly and easily, while others need explicit teaching and more opportunities for practice.

In her book Promoting Executive Function in the Classroom, Dr. Meltzer suggests a number of ways EF strategies can be integrated. A few examples that The Jones-Gordon School employs:

  • To aid in memorization: acronyms, mnemonics, and cartoons (especially for students with nonverbal strengths) to help students memorize information
  • To enhance cognitive flexibility: riddles and jokes to encourage shifting between word meanings; use of graphic organizers in writing to make connections between ideas; previewing lessons and expectations
  • For prioritizing: color-coding techniques, which can also increase comprehension and retention; students can highlight the most important ideas in a text in one color and details in another color, for example
  • For study skills: Teaching how to study for different types of tests as well as different subjects
  • To improve metacognitive thinking: Thinking about doing… “What is this math problem asking me to do? Does it look similar to something I’ve done before?”

In The Jones-Gordon School’s classrooms, we strive to apply basic instructional modifications to accommodate and enhance students’ executive function skills. For example, we keep our class sizes small (8 students maximum), use routine “cueing systems” such as simple checklists, assist students in breaking-up large assignments into smaller more manageable “chunks,” and provide immediate and positive feedback to students on their academic performance.

During the school day, we teach and practice EF skills such as note-taking strategies, time management techniques, test- taking skills, stress reduction methods, and learning style awareness, in isolation as well as within the context of the curriculum. In addition, we provide opportunities for one-on-one remediation of our students’ executive functioning weaknesses; each student receives a daily Tutorial hour, where instructors teach and reinforce study skills and organizational systems in addition to content support.

These are a few of the small but powerful ways we enable students to effectively develop and use essential executive function skills.

In one year [at JGS], our son doubled and even TRIPLED his academic scores across the board!
-The Jones-Gordon School parent
The above is provided for informational purposes only, and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.