Learn How You Learn

Imagine your brain as a filing cabinet....
each drawer is an executive function

Open the drawers below and learn about each executive function.

Attention is being able to focus on a task or person for a period of time. Attention skills also include how to refocus when attention is waning, ignore distractions, and fine-tune the level of focus necessary for a task. It’s important to note that attention is an academic skill, but it is also a life skill.

Flexibility is being able to adapt to change. That includes going with the flow when something doesn’t go our way and problem-solving to figure out a different strategy when plan A doesn’t work out. Mental flexibility is important because it helps us manage stress and tough situations.

Metacognition is having self-awareness about our own thinking. It is knowing what we know and what we don’t know. This is an important skill because if we want to learn, we need to know what we need to learn in the first place.

Organization is developing and maintaining a system to keep track of materials and plans.

Perseverance is the ability to keep working until the completion of a goal. This means not giving up when something is challenging. Instead, those with strong perseverance skills are able to solve problems, push through, and get to the finish line.

Planning is the ability to think about an end-goal and create a roadmap to help you get there. Someone who plans well is more likely to achieve their goals effectively and efficiently, since making a plan allows us to think through what we want to ultimately accomplish. Planning is one of the more foundational executive functioning skills, as it sets the stage for success. It’s always best to figure out a thorough plan before starting a task.

Self-control is regulating our thoughts, emotions, and actions. Quite often, this involves stopping and thinking about choices before making them. With strong self-control skills, we can make better choices for now and in the future.

Task initiation is the ability to start a task. It includes overcoming procrastination and getting started on tasks even if you don’t want to do them. This is a critical life skill that involves self-regulation.

Time management is being able to use time efficiently to complete tasks. It includes being able to estimate how long tasks will take, planning out a timeline to accomplish more challenging tasks, and checking in with self to stay on track along the way. With strong time management skills, it makes it easier to accomplish work well the first time around. As with most other executive functioning skills, time management isn’t just one isolated skill. It includes being able to estimate how long tasks will take, prioritizing, dividing time between tasks, pacing yourself, using time wisely, and working to meet deadlines.

Executive functions play an important role in many different areas of life.

Executive functions and signs of executive function challenges.

Some things that you do every day that are dependent on your executive functions include:

analyzing information • being able to focus on something • keeping track of your behaviors • making plans • managing behavior • managing your time • paying attention • regulating emotions • remembering important details • seeing things from someone else’s perspective • self-regulating moods, reactions and interactions with others • staying organized

Common Signs of Executive Function Challenges:

difficulty maintaining a planner or agenda for writing assignments • difficulty keeping your room, office, bookbag, home… organized • difficulty planning long term projects, assignments ; often completing them at the last minute • difficulty keeping appointments • difficulty transitioning from one task to another • difficulty listening to and following multi-step directions • often forgetting important items needed for work or school (papers; notebooks; computer…) • difficulty estimating how long a task or project will take • difficulty starting homework; projects; assignments independently • easily distracted. • difficulty keeping track of possessions (keys; phone; glasses…) and often lose important items. • difficulty knowing how and when to start a project • being so overwhelmed with “everything”, just become stuck

Executive Functioning

The management system of the brain for the cognitive skills that are needed for self-control and managing behaviors.

Executive Functioning is the management system of the brain for the cognitive skills that are needed for self-control and managing behaviors. These mental functions help us organize and manage the many tasks in our daily life, allowing us to do things like follow directions, focus, control emotions, flexible thinking and attain goals.

The executive functions’ role is similar to a conductor’s role within an orchestra. The conductor manages, directs, organizes, and integrates each member of the orchestra. They cue each musician so they know when to begin to play, and how fast or slow, loud or soft to play, and when to stop playing. Without the conductor, the music would not flow as smoothly or sound as beautiful.

Executive Function is not genetic. Executive Function is learned. The learning begins in childhood and can continue through all stages of life. The expression “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” was based on antiquated knowledge of brain structure and development. Current research describes the ability of the brain to continually change and learn, called neuroplasticity. Old dogs CAN learn new tricks.

Executive functioning skills are the important processes in our brain that help us finish tasks and meet our goals. If it sounds like we use them for everything we do, that’d be right – we do! It’s important to mention, though, that executive functioning skills are a huge umbrella. There are actually several different skills that work together to make up our executive functioning. Each skill is valuable and important.

Executive Function are the mental skills that help you get stuff done:

managing time • paying attention to tasks • switching focus between tasks and activities • planning and organizing details, projects, tasks… • remembering details • avoiding saying or doing the “wrong” thing; acting or speaking impulsively • doing things based on past experiences • multitasking • regulating emotions • organizing yourself (time, planning, belongings)

Planning for a long-term project, reflecting on progress, and getting organized before an exam – these are all helpful study habits kids and teens can take with them throughout their lives. Simply put, teaching executive functioning skills also teaches study skills and habits.

Kids and teens aren’t born with a toolbox filled with executive functioning skills. Instead, they are born with the capacities to improve them over time. While it’s true that some learners acquire these skills early on at home, through interactions with peers, and as part of the hidden curriculum, many learners do not.

These skills deserve time to be shaped and supported in the best ways possible. Quite often, that means explicitly teaching skills like how to organize your binder, study strategies, techniques to persevere through challenges, and how to keep your cool in times of stress.

Sometimes when we talk about executive functioning skills, we only think of them through the lens of school when actually these skills are used our entire lives. We use planning and time management to schedule our daily and weekly responsibilities. We use organization and task initiation to keep a tidy space at home. We use self-control, flexibility, and perseverance to handle difficult decisions every day.

Executive functioning skills are not just academic skills, but life skills, and they deserve to be taught.

As educators, one of the main goals we have for learners is to teach them to be independent. Stronger EF skills can help with just that. These abilities help kids and teens make better choices, manage their time well, plan, and work through challenges. In essence, all of these abilities also help them become independent. Executive functioning skills don’t just help kids and teens in the moment; they empower them to make positive choices for the future.

Social skills and executive functioning skills are linked, which provides another reason why EF skills should be targeted and taught. When learners have meaningful conversations with others, they need to use working memory to think about what they want to talk about and attention skills to stay focused. We also use self-control skills on a regular basis to make socially-sound choices. When we strengthen executive functioning skills, we are strengthening social skills too.

Think about all the executive functioning skills kids and teens use during the academic day: focusing on instruction (attention), keeping materials orderly (organization), starting work right away (task initiation), knowing what material to study for a quiz (metacognition), working through challenges (perseverance). The list goes on.Strong executive functioning skills support academic growth. While it’s true that any educator can tell you this from personal experience, the research also supports the link between executive functioning skills and academic success.

Integrate executive functioning skills into the curriculum and what you are already teaching. This is efficient and often effective. Not all kids and teens pick up on this type of learning, though. Sometimes, skills need to be taught explicitly.

This means teaching exactly what organization is, what it looks like, when you should engage in the skill, and how to assess yourself as you go. When you think about it, there is actually a lot to learn for every single executive functioning skill! And since some learners will not pick up on all of these skills on their own, they need to be taught.

Social emotional learning has gotten a lot of attention lately, and that’s a great thing. It’s worth mentioning, though, that executive functioning skills fit into social emotional learning quite well. That’s because they are skills related to self-management, decision-making, and self-awareness. Teaching executive functioning skills support social emotional learning too.

Executive functioning skill instruction is truly helpful for every learner. With that said, struggling learners need these skills are a far greater level. These are the kids who forget their binders, misplace homework, and can’t focus in class. These are the young adults who get frustrated when the schedule doesn’t go the way they thought it would and give up when questions on a test seem too hard.

These are the learners who need executive functioning skills right away. When a learner struggles with executive functioning skills like organization, time management, and planning, we should take it as seriously as when someone struggles with reading or math.

Even though any educator can tell you that executive functioning skills are critical to academic success on their own, it’s worth mentioning that the research supports this too. Strong executive functioning skills can be an early indicator of academic success.

And this just makes sense, right? When learners are better able to manage their time, focus during lessons, and persevere through difficult tasks, they are going to do better academically. Executive functioning skills certainly strengthen all academic skills from reading to math and beyond.

So often when we think of executive functioning instruction, we think of it as an intervention for struggling learners. While it’s true that learners who already struggle with basic executive functioning skills absolutely need this type of support (as mentioned above), sometimes this can miss the bigger picture.

By teaching executive functioning skills proactively, we can reduce academic challenges later on. It essentially gives kids and teens the building blocks they need to be successful from the start.

For kids and teens who lack strong executive functioning skills like planning, organization, and time management, improving them can often be a great deal of work. It’s important to carve out time to focus on teaching them. Kids and teens already have a lot going on with academics from learning new math skills to writing history papers. By dedicating some amount of time to executive functioning skills, it can provide that extra practice for learners who need it the most.

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