7 Practical Tools to Enhance Executive Functioning in the Classroom

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As defined by Understood, executive function is “The ability to organize cognitive processes. This includes the ability to plan ahead, prioritize, stop and start activities, shift from one activity to another activity and monitor one’s own behavior.”

Time management, organization, planning, paying attention, problem-solving, initiating and completing tasks, managing emotions – executive functioning is responsible for these essential skills for life. However, these skills don’t come naturally for everyone.

 Perhaps you have a student who is often late and unprepared for class, who has difficulty with organizing his/her thoughts when writing an essay or struggles with paying attention in class. Maybe you have a student who gets easily frustrated and can’t go a day without having an emotional meltdown. Outlined below are seven practical tools to help students develop and strengthen their executive function skills in your classroom.

Tool #1: Self-Monitoring Questionnaires
Teach your students to self-monitor their behaviors by having them complete a simple yes/no questionnaire at the beginning and/or the end of class based on whatever behavior(s) you are working to target. For example:

  • Was I on time for class?
  • Was I prepared for class with all necessary materials (books, pen, completed homework)?
  • Did I record the homework assignment in my planner?
  • Was I attentive in class?

Take it a step further by helping students set behavior goals each day or week and have them track their progress over time.

Tool #2: Timers

Help strengthen students’ time management skills by incorporating timers into your teaching practice. To give them a better sense of time awareness, assign students a task and have them estimate how long they think it will take them to complete the task. Set a timer, then have students compare how long it actually took to complete. The visual Time Timer is a wonderful option for students who might feel anxious when digital timers are set. (There is also a Time Timer app available.)

Tool #3: Detailed Schedules

To assist students with punctuality and preparedness, sit down and take a close look at their schedules with them. Talk about the routes they are taking from class to class and how they are spending their time between bells. Maybe they’re taking a longer route to class because that’s the way their friends are going. Or maybe they are making unnecessary stops at their lockers. Discuss and map out the most efficient routes around the school to maximize their time. Rewrite their schedules to include the most opportune times to stop at their lockers and to use the restroom.

Tool #4: SODAS

Help students strengthen their problem-solving skills by explicitly teaching them the potential consequences (positive and negative) of their actions. The SODAS decision-making model is a user-friendly and effective way for students to process situations while giving them ownership of  their actions.

 SODAS is an acronym that stands for:

  • Situation
  • Options
  • Disadvantages
  • Advantages
  • Solution

Tool #5: Mindful Breathing Exercises
Take a few moments to teach your students self-calming and stress management strategies, such as deep breathing. You will empower your students to manage their strong emotions proactively while creating a peaceful environment that is optimal for learning. My go-to self-calming strategy is the 4-7-8 breathing exercise. (Breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds, breathe out for 8 seconds. Repeat.)

Tool #6: Checklists

PHONE-check.

WALLET-check.

KEYS-check.

This is my husband’s mental checklist that he uses before leaving the house every day to ensure he’s prepared – and it works!

Help students create their own mental or visual checklists to ensure they are prepared for whatever lies ahead. Check out this customizable luggage tag for students to attach to their backpacks. One side includes a list of items to take to school (completed homework, lunch, books, etc.). The other side includes a list of items to take home at the end of the day (planner, homework folder, dirty gym clothes, etc.).

Tool #7: Graphic Organizers

Enable students to organize their thoughts and ideas for essay-writing by providing graphic organizers. This website provides free, downloadable graphic organizers for different forms of writing. (The graphic organizers are also fillable, so students can easily type and print when they are finished.)

Interested in adding additional tools to your toolbox to enhance executive functioning in your classroom? Check out our new course Executive Function and Creating Effective Learning Assessments.


Here are a few classes related to this topic:

Jill Rockwell
Jill has over 13 years of experience as a licensed teacher in the areas of Special Education, Reading Education, and Health Education. She embraces diversity and has worked with students in grades K-12 in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and California. Jill completed her Master of Science degree at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls while teaching full time. She fully understands the soaring demands of today’s teachers. Her courses are designed to maximize the time of all educators by providing engaging, meaningful, and applicable activities which can be used to enhance teaching practices. She focuses on research-based best practices and technology integration throughout her own instructional practices. Together with her husband and two young boys, Jill enjoys traveling, biking and the changing seasons of the great outdoors in Wisconsin.