Leading IEP Champion: Strategies to Improve Executive Functioning (EF)

April 21, 2015

I recently attended a Mental Health Workshop where an expert made a statement that stuck with me.

“Anxiety is just a symptom of a deficit in Executive Functioning (EF).” This statement inspired me to find and share strategies that will specifically address and improve executive functioning skills at school. Many students who have an IEP (Individual Education Plan) often have deficits in executive functioning skills. Parents/teachers can help by understanding EF impairments and implementing specific strategies in order to improve and maximize student learning. Sandra Rief is an expert and Executive Function and many of these strategies are taken from her website: .

So what is EF?

Executive Functioning is the command and control processes of the brain. EF involves cognitive processes that enable a person to engage in problem solving and goal-directed behaviours. (EF impairments are common in children with some neuro-biological disorders and disabilities-particularly ADHD.)

Executive Functioning Components and Processes

Inhibition is the ability to stop and think before making a response.

Organization involves creating structure or order.

Planning includes designing a course of action (long/ short-term) with strategies/sequence of steps.

Prioritization is the ability to determine relative importance of various tasks and organize, plan, and sequence actions accordingly.

Activation/Initiation is the motivation to begin an action or work on tasks.

Time Awareness and Management involves understanding the awareness of how long things take, and planning/acting accordingly; it involves completion of tasks within deadlines/due dates.

Sustained Attention is maintaining alertness and focus and resisting distractions.

Working Memory is the ability to hold information long enough to do something with it (solve a problem, complete a task).

Self-monitoring/Metacognition is being aware of and self-checking one’s own behaviour, thought processes, and comprehension.

Shifting/Flexibility is the ability to adapt/adjust/shift when needed (one’s thinking, actions, behaviour).

Goal-Directed Persistence includes perseverance, maintaining the effort and follow-through with actions needed to achieve goals.

Emotional Control is the ability to manage and self-regulate one’s frustrations and emotions.


What Do Teachers NEED to Know About Executive Function Impairments?

Students with ADHD have a developmental delay of approximately 30% in EF skills; affecting their behaviour and self-management. Students with EF impairment can often be unfairly perceived or labeled as “lazy” or “unmotivated”. This is not the case. Those behaviours that frustrate teachers and parents (chronic lateness, disorganization, poor work production) are not deliberate, but part of their disability. The following strategies will help to eliminate frustration so students can get on with learning.

Inhibition Strategies

  • Have the student repeat directions, restate in his/her own words before beginning the tasks
  • Use hand signals/other visual cures to indicate “wait” and “don’t interrupt”
  • Remind the student prior to entering challenging situations about his/her expected behaviour
  • Teach/prompt the student to stop and think of consequences of inappropriate behaviours. Ask: What do you think will happen if you continue to?” “What should you be doing right now?”

Working Memory Strategies

  • Provide written reminders and instructions
  • Visually post assignments in a consistent location of the classroom
  • Use visual/graphic depictions to help the student remember steps of routines and procedures
  • Help the student look for ways in which items go together (any links or associations to aid recall)
  • Use graphic organizers to aid recall and comprehension of text
  • Reduce memory demands (provide copy of multiplication tables, word banks, etc.)
  • Encourage the use of post-it note reminders in strategic locations
  • Allow students to use electronic tools such as recording self-reminders at end of class period
  • Find ways to remind the student (collect directly at beginning of day/period; assign a classmate to remind that student). Allow the student to email homework directly to the teacher.

Prioritization Strategies

  • Help students make plans with leading questions and prompts: “What is most important? “What do you need to do first?” what would happen if you don’t get ____done?
  • Have the student make long and short-term “to do” lists and designate the most important or time-sensitive items on each list (with an asterisk or colour-highlight)
  • Provide frequent practice distinguishing between main/less relevant information or ideas

Organize and Planning Strategies

  • Monitor and reward when the student uses organizational tools/meets organizational goals
  • Provide direct assistance and support at the planning/pre-writing stage of written assignments or projects (generating, talking about and organizing ideas)
  • Provide checklists of specific questions that students are to ask themselves during the planning stage of written assignments. (Who is my audience? What is my position on this topic?)
  • Explicitly teach, model, and practice organization skills

Activation and Initiation Strategies

  • Help the student get started on writing assignments by talking through the first few sentences or so. Provide scaffolds such as sentence starters and frames
  • Read directions together, have the student repeat in own words to ensure understanding of expectations before beginning assignments/talks
  • Divide the assignment/tasks into smaller, less overwhelming sections/steps to accomplish
  • Set small goals of what is to be accomplished in a specific time frame

Sustained Attention and Focus Strategies

  • Prepare well-planned, motivating lessons that are structured for high engagement-which work best for maintaining the student’s attention
  • Provide frequent “check in” times with the student to monitor and reinforce on-task behaviour and work completion
  • Use instructional tools/technologies that are engaging throughout lesson presentation (interactive while boards, document cameras, interactive software, electronic response cards)
  • Use highlighter pens and tape to call attention to important points, steps and directions

Time Awareness and Management Strategies

  • Break long-term assignments (book reports, research projects) in a series of smaller steps.
  • Assign incremental due dates to structure the timeline towards project completion
  • Allow sufficient time for students to record assignments in planners/phones before leaving class

Self-Monitoring and Metacognition Strategies

  • Build in self-reflection activities by having students record strategies they used (What was helpful? What would I do differently next time?)
  • Provide a rubric that describes expectations for assignments (include specific evaluation criteria)
  • Have students self-question (Did I understand this? What part does not make sense?)
  • Verbalize the thinking process (What goes on in your head when approaching problem?)

Goal-Directed Persistence Strategies

  • Help students set long/short term goals and record them
  • Meet with students periodically to conference about the progress toward their goals

Emotional Control and Flexibility

  • Provide opportunities for the student to change environments and have an escape valve when becoming agitated, angry or frustrated (e.g., take a bathroom break, go for a drink)
  • Work out a private signal that student can give when needing help or a break and provide support as quickly as possible

Whether one or all of these strategies apply to your child, be sure to share them with your school team. When they are consistently implemented at home and at school, they can be very effective. Often teachers will say, “I have tried everything!” And as a teacher, it can be frustrating because they have 30 other students they are trying to manage and teach a curriculum that is often demanding and fast-paced. Students with deficits in executive functioning will have trouble keeping up and desperately need these accommodations in place. When these strategies are not implemented for a child with ADHD for example, they can become angry, frustrated and full of anxiety. When these emotions take over, learning does not occur. As parents, we must advocate for these accommodations and work collaboratively with the school team to ensure success. Improving Executive Function will decrease anxiety and minimize behaviours therefore, allowing students to reach their maximum potential.


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