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What is Executive Functioning? – Simply Special Ed

Executive functioning is a “buzz word” that has been becoming more and more commonplace in the school setting; and rightfully so! According to a paper for the National Center for Education Research Institute of Education Sciences, executive functions are a better indicator of academic success than cognition! So we should really be focusing on these skills with out students in school. Not only is executive functioning important for school success, but these are skills that can be used beyond the classroom in daily life. From planning to organizing… from initiating and completing a task… and everything in between! Executive functioning is part of it all!

Before School Routine velcro visual schedule with check lists and Xs.  Pack lunch, backpack, tv, bus is shown on the right hand side.  Other weekend activity pictures like cleaning, swimming, grocery shopping and iPad are shown.

What is executive functioning?

“the attention-regulation skills1 that make it possible to sustain attention, keep goals and information in mind, refrain from responding immediately, resist distraction, tolerate frustration, consider the consequences of different behaviors, reflect on past experiences, and plan for the future”

Zelazo, Blair & Willoughby, 2016, p. 1

emotion matching cards with the emotion word and a facial expression picture. Sad, embarrassed, hurt are shown

Executive functioning includes skills like:

  • Working Memory
    • Metacognition & self-monitoring
fingers erasing handwritten work with a pencil eraser

These skills allow students to successfully think about more than one thing at a time. Holding previous information in their brain to successfully use/apply later. Students also need to be able to think about what they are thinking. They need to be able to self-monitor their actions/behavior and make corrections as needed.

  • Inhibitory Control
    • Response inhibition
    • Emotional control
sensory choice board from the Simple Sensory Self-Regulation Toolkit resource with crunchy snack, drink water, walk, deep pressure, rocking chair, brushing, self squeeze and music listed

Check out the Simple Sensory Self-Regulation Toolkit for ways to teach strategies for self-regulation. Alyssa has a great blog on books that teach self-regulation skills!

  • Sustained Attention
    • Task initiation
    • Goal setting & persistence
Goals written on red, orange, green, yellow and blue pieces of paper [one letter on each] and hung on a string with clothespins

Often times, our kiddos with ADHD have a hard time with executive functions like maintaining adequate attention to see a task to completion. However, things like knowing how to start a task, sequencing the steps required, planning out those steps, prioritizing what to do first, setting and seeing the end goal and persisting until the end can all also be challenging for these kiddos.

  • Organization
    • Time management
    • Organization of materials
    • Prioritization & forward planning
yellow, red and blue three ring binders stacked

Sometimes we think of organizational skills as becoming important in middle school when students change classes. I have come to realize, that we need to start teaching some of these skills much earlier on!

  • Cognitive Flexibility
    • Mental shift
    • Time management
Two preschool girls playing with large Duplo blocks

A lot of cognitive flexibility is built during play and social interactions in younger grade levels. Things like taking turns, winning and losing and changing activities/transitions work on these skills.

And the above examples were just to name a few executive functions!


Zelazo, P.D., Blair, C.B., and Willoughby, M.T. (2016). Executive function: Implications for education (NCER 2017-2000) Washington, DC: National Center for Education Research, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.



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