7 ways to support executive function skills this school year

by Mary Pembleton

Organization, time management, working memory, self-control, stress tolerance— executive function skills are important to success at school! When it comes to executive function skills, most of us have strengths and weaknesses. Students are no exception, especially students with learning disabilities like ADHD or dyslexia.

For these students, executive function challenges can really get in the way of learning.

Starting the year with the right support in place can keep students with executive function challenges from falling behind.

Support your students with executive function challenges with these 7 ideas:

1. Use a simple card system

Hand holding a red card

When a student struggles with executive function, it can be embarrassing to ask for help. Additionally, it can be hard to know the right time to ask for help, leading to frequent disruptions.

But without assistance, students with executive function challenges are at risk of falling behind.

A simple card system can help.

Here’s how it works:

  • Give each student a card to keep on their desk, one side red and the other side green. If a student doesn’t need any help, the green side stays up. If a student has a question or needs help, they can flip it to red.
  • Remind students to make a written note of their question so they don’t forget it while they wait.

The benefits? A student isn’t singled out for asking for help, and they’re less likely to interrupt!

2. Post a daily schedule

Never underestimate the power of a visual schedule. Schedules are a common sight in classrooms for good reason.

Going over any unexpected change in the daily schedule in the morning will help students adjust.

For students who switch classes, prompt them to post their schedule somewhere that’s visible to them—like the cover of a notebook. This will help them remember what to do when.

3. Reduce digital distractions

Snap&Read’s Remove Distractions tool does an excellent job of removing ads and video that can make focusing on reading more difficult.

All that’s left is clean, readable text.

Remove Distractions is just one of the digital tools available to support students with executive functioning. Discover more in this free webinar, Snap&Read: 5 Essential Supports for Executive Function.

4. Notice small successes (as much as possible!)

Schoolgirl running through school corridor

Try to catch students, particularly the ones who struggle, the moment they do something right.

The more someone calls attention to a behavior, the more likely they’ll see it again. Noticing students doing something that’s hard for them will go a long way.

For example: “You handled that transition beautifully. Way to go. What was working for you?”

For younger students, a token economy system offers instant gratification while students work for a larger reward at the same time. A token economy is when kids earn tokens (like stickers) throughout tasks that they trade in for rewards. (Pro tip: this works shockingly well for adults too.)

Start small. For example: “Earn five tokens, and you can take a five minute break.”

A token can be given for something as small as twenty seconds of focusing on a task! Pair the token with feedback like, “great focusing, keep it up!”

Give more tokens at a higher frequency when you first start using a token economy. This will help build behaviors you want to see, like staying on-task without talking to a neighbor.

5. Pomodoro timers

Close up view of sand clock isolated on white

Pomodoro timer apps are a great way for older students to practice self-monitoring.

With Pomodoro apps, students can set periods of focus times followed by break times. The app reminds students when to take breaks and when to start focusing again.

They can be a great tool for keeping students focused.

6. Digital study tools

  • Note-taking tool: Snap&Read’s note-taking tool allows students to select text from whatever they’re reading and capture it in a sidebar.
    That sidebar travels with them across any source, so their notes are always on display. It captures images as well!
    Snap&Read also automatically attributes highlighted content to the webpage source that it came from—automatically generating a bibliography in Chicago, MLA or APA formats) in the sidebar.
  • Outline Template Tool: When students have trouble organizing their thoughts, an outline template can be super helpful.
    From “fiction” to “SQ3R” and 3 paragraph essays, Snap&Read has more than 60 evidence-based outlines available for students to use.

7. Journaling

Woman with pen writing on a notebook sitting on grass in park

Excessive stress is a proven way to worsen executive function challenges. But journaling is a proven way to relieve stress!

It’s also a great method of reflection for students.

What are they struggling with? Could they brainstorm possible solutions?

Just 15 minutes of journaling can go a long way in emotional regulation and problem solving.

These are just some of the many strategies that can support students with executive functioning. To learn more, watch executive function guru Keri Huddleston explain how to support students with their executive functioning skills.