Focus, Organize, and Succeed: An Executive Functioning Toolkit that Works

Written by Mary Pembleton
Based on a Webinar by Diana Petschauer

Young boy running with drawings of school things behind him

Imagine that your brain has trouble filtering out distractions: it may feel like trying to work inside a dark movie theater with the volume turned all the way up and your favorite movie playing. Focusing in such an environment may seem impossible. You may feel angry, and the way you experience anger adds to feelings of overwhelm. You want to throw your work down on the theater floor and run outside.

Student looking at the sky with letters falling like rain

Now you can begin to understand what a student with executive functioning difficulties experiences every day. They may be working on a computer in a house where their baby brother is yelling in the background, video games are calling from the living room, and the webpage they’re trying to read is buried in flashing advertisements designed as clickbait. Any one of these distractions could lead down a rabbit hole and away from the task at hand. Of course, focus is only one of the many components of executive functioning.

 

Navigating school with executive functioning deficits is not easy by any stretch of the imagination. But we believe that, given the right tools, students who struggle with executive function can learn and work effectively even in an unpredictable environment.

Hand with a pencil erasing on a piece of notebook paper

Learners without access to those tools may find that they feel frustrated, anxious, or even ashamed when they have a difficult time paying attention, organizing and planning tasks, maintaining focus, managing their emotions, and keeping track of academic responsibilities. And educators, who may also be feeling overwhelmed themselves, may be at a loss for ways to provide learners with needed support.

 

In an effort to build a direct and accessible path through these challenges, Diana Petschauer, M.Ed, ATP, and Laurie McIntosh, MS, OTR/L, ATP, put their brilliant minds, and years of experience, together to curate an executive function toolkit for educators and their learners. They’ve compiled some of the most effective digital tools available to aid executive function. You’ll find their executive function toolkit is brimming with resources to empower students to focus their attention, organize their thoughts, and work through this tough school year with greater confidence and independence.

The Toolkit

The toolkit below consists of extensions, programs and apps, many of which extend across digital programs and platforms, all of which bridge specific executive function needs.

Animated text with Your Toolkit logo cycling between Equity, Inclusion, Google, IEP Accommodation, Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, and eLearning

Apps + Extensions
These are the heart and soul of the toolkit, and can do the work of several apps and extensions at once. In other words, one of these multi-function programs used in conjunction with another can meet many executive function needs. Specifically, the tools that follow help with scheduling and organizing, and support students with reading, research, and writing tasks.

Snap&Read:

Snap&Read, by Don Johnston provides users with a set of intuitive reading tools that can help students overcome executive function issues. Thousands of school districts use Snap&Read to give access to the curriculum and help students with executive functioning issues.

Animated Snap&Read Color Overlays and reading line guides

Focus: Snap&Read reads aloud from any text, be it from a document, a webpage, or PDF, while highlighting each individual word for visual tracking. It can also reduce visual distraction by transforming busy web pages into easier-to-read (less salesy/flashy) displays of text, promoting the ability to focus on the reading. Learners can use Snap&Read’s screen masking function, which provides a visual color overlay to assist with reading focus as well.

Animated: Snap&Read Remove Distractions

Organization: The note-taking option makes researching, planning, and crediting sources a breeze: students can highlight any text and snap it into an outline that automatically tracks sources in detail and compiles them into a bibliography. This can be hugely helpful to those who struggle with executive function- keeping track of both information and sources, and then organizing sources into a bibliography is a multi-step process that requires much in the way of planning and sequencing. Snap&Read also offers the ability to annotate PDF documents, which can be beneficial in streamlining tasks needed to complete work.

Animation showing study tools including highlighting, and image selection in Snap&Read

Working Memory: Built in text leveling tools adjust difficult text vocabulary—unfamiliar words that can be a stumbling block for students with executive functioning challenges—into more readable terms.

Animation shows the Snap&Read Dynamic Text Leveling tool that simplifies text

With both Co:Writer and Snap&Read, schools will benefit from centralized student management, data reporting, and LMS integrations, including direct connections with Google Classroom.
Snap&Read works hand-in-hand with our next tool, Co:Writer.

Co:Writer:

Co:Writer, also by Don Johnston, is an immensely popular writing assistant. It’s a versatile tool that includes word prediction, translation, and speech-to-text that can help students write, edit, and complete assignments.

 

Word prediction can help support the executive function skills of planning and aid working memory, and for this, Co:Writer comes equipped with easy-to-use word prediction that displays as a list of words and phrases as students type. The list is populated by words and phrases based on the context of the sentence and what’s likely to come next in real time as a student types. Co:Writer’s word prediction is particularly phonetically sensitive—especially useful for students who struggle with spelling. It helps unstick ideas and get them to flow into writing. The helpful word/phrase list can follow along with the cursor or be placed in a static position out of the way for occasional support.

Animation shows the Co:Writer Neuron Word Prediction tool

If students are writing about a particular subject, Co:Writer’s word prediction can be finely tuned to a specific topic by selecting one of the thousands of available Topic Dictionaries. For example, a student can select dinosaurs, and the predictive text will offer dinosaur-specific vocabulary, allowing them to express that their favorite dinosaur is something as obscure and uncommon as Saurolophus. Which, let’s be honest, many teachers wouldn’t even be able to spell. Topic Dictionaries also encourage students to maintain attention on their chosen topic.

Animation shows the Co:Writer (topic-specific) Vocabulary tool

And Co:Writer also offers a Speech-to-Text (voice typing), which can be helpful to students for whom planning skills stand in the way of writing cohesive text. In addition, the text can be read aloud after the student voices it, which helps students self-edit their work. Co:Writer can also be set to read each word aloud as it’s written, and/or to read each sentence after the period, which helps students self-assess mistakes while writing.

Co:Writer word processing animation

Other Apps + Extensions

Google Keep: This is a fantastic tool for scheduling and organizing tasks that syncs across all devices. It allows for sharing and collaboration and makes it easy to organize and label lists and reminders by topic. Step-by-step checklists help learners who struggle with sequencing. Users can create to-do lists, schedule reminders, and organize class assignments, all in one central location.

Google Chrome Extensions

These free extensions offer easily integrated, straightforward tools to address specific executive function issues: time management, distraction reduction, and organizing research.

  • Tab Snooze: Schedule a particular website to open later in the day, with a reminder. Encourages focus by removing the distractions and the FOMO (fear of missing out) they can present.
  • One Tab: Reduces visual noise by consolidating all open tabs into a single organized list.
  • Scrible: Highlighting tool for research purposes. Highlighted information is saved in a library for easy access or for sharing with peers and teachers.
  • Visual Timer: Assists with time management. Users can select how long they would like to focus and schedule alerts for breaks.
  • Marinara: Pomodoro Assistant: Another great timer option for time management.

Apps

The following apps offer concrete digital resources to help with organizing thoughts and information.

  • Mindomo: Mind mapping/brainstorming app that allows learners to organize thoughts. Options to add notes, create hyperlinks, bring in images and icons, add video and audio.
  • Holt Interactive Graphic Organizers: Provides editable, digital format of traditional graphic organizers that learners can download, save, and share.

iPad Apps

These apps address organization and sequencing needs.

  • Mind Mapping: Versatile brainstorming tool that allows learners to draft a mind map that translates to an outline format.
  • Can Plan: Promotes learner’s independence by providing a customizable format for visual, audio, or video step-by-step to-do lists. Prompts task sequencing and allows tasks to be scheduled with a reminder across devices.
  • 360 Thinking Time Tracker: Visual productivity app with a color-coded clock that breaks down tasks into three colored categories: Get Ready, in yellow, Do, in green, and Stop, in red. This app is especially helpful for learners who struggle with transitions.

View the Webinar

Interested in learning more? Our Executive Function Toolkit Webinar offers detailed visual and audio explanations of how to use the tools listed above, along with further resources.

Your Executive Functioning Toolkit—Their Key to Independent Learning