Executive Functioning Basics for Teachers

Our executive functions are like the air traffic controllers of our brains.  They are the foundation for all learning which helps us to connect past experiences with present action.  There is much evidence to support that executive function is one of the most reliable predictors of success in academics and in life – beating out test scores, IQ, and socioeconomic status.

The potential for these skills is innate, already hard-wired into our brains at birth.  Both biology and experiences determine how these skills will develop, with the research suggesting that these skills are not fully developed until our mid-twenties.


What are Executive Functioning Skills?


There are 11 skills that make up our executive function and they typically develop in the following order.  Let’s take a closer look at each skill in its simplest form.

Response Inhibition:  

The ability to stop and think before acting.


Working Memory:  

The ability to hold information in your mind and use it to complete a task.


Emotional Control:  

The ability to manage emotions to achieve goals, complete tasks, or control and direct behaviour.


Sustained Attention:  

The ability to keep paying attention to a situation or task, in spite of distractibility, fatigue or boredom.


Task Initiation:  

The ability to recognize when it is time to get started on something and begin without procrastination.


Planning & Prioritizing:  

The ability to create steps to reach a goal and to make decisions about what to focus on.



The ability to create and maintain systems to keep track of information or materials.


Time Management:  

The ability to estimate how much time one has, how to allocate it, and how to stay within time limits and deadlines.


Goal-Directed Persistence:  

The ability to have a goal, and follow through to completion of the goal, without being distracted by competing interests.



The ability to change strategies or revise plans when conditions change (adaptability).



The ability to monitor and evaluate your own performance. 


There are many factors that can impact the growth and development of these skills, such as genetics, trauma, physical injury to the brain, etc.  However, in the absence of any of mitigating factors brain development should proceed as expected.


Implications for Teachers


It's imperative, as teachers, that we have a solid understanding of these executive function skills and their implications for learning.  When we do, we tend to respond differently to our students' needs and do a better job at implementing structures and supports. 

We are also in a better position to openly discuss with our students how the brain works and why some things are easier for certain students and hard for others.  My favourite conversation to have with students is around processing speed.

How many times have you played a game in class that required a quick recall of information with your students?  For example, putting math facts or sight words on flashcards and then asking the kids to compete to see who can recall them the fastest.  Every single student in the class already knows ahead of time who will ultimately win, who will beat who, who they are faster than and not faster than because it really is just an exercise in processing speed.  Most students can get to the correct answer, some of them are just fortunate enough to have brains that process information quickly.

Students whose brains take longer to process will ultimately determine after enough of these experiences that they are "not smart" because they can't remember things quickly like other kids can.  Slow processing speed is often the antecedent to students referring to themselves as "dumb".

Imagine being a kid in a classroom where everything runs at top speed moving from one activity to the next, one question to the next, one expectation to the next.  Students with brains that take longer to process information are typically confused and spend most of the day trying to figure out what is going on.  They often miss directions and aren't sure what is being expected of them because they are still trying to process something that you said three minutes ago.  Yet by now you have given two additional instructions.  Imagine how much learning they must miss in a day?  Imagine how exhausting is must be to always be running from behind and trying to keep up?

As teachers, we must constantly be considering how the executive functioning processes are impacting the learning opportunities that we are providing our students.  And in addition, determining which supports need to be in place for each student that may require them.  Only then are we truly creating an environment where all kids can reach their fullest potential and be successful as learners.

 In my experience when students understand that all brains come wired differently and in particular, how their brain is wired, it completely changes a student's perspective of self and preserves their self-esteem.


Overview of Executive Functioning Skills by Age 


Attached here is a chart created by Life Skills Advocate showing a brief overview of each skill by age.  This is a great starting off point to get you thinking about your student’s strengths, needs, and areas for development in terms of executive functioning skills.


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