Executive Functioning

The brain-based skills that are involved in formulating a plan of action to accomplish a goal. Strategies to get started, stick with it, and finish the job.

Executive functioning (EF) skills are the brain-based skills that are involved in formulating a plan of action to accomplish a goal. A person’s executive skills are hard at work during the simplest of tasks, such as choosing what to wear in the morning, to more complex tasks such as planning a dinner party, or submitting a final paper in university.

Executive skills can be described as the “thinking skills” behind a person’s ability to impose order on thoughts or objects, plan ahead to achieve a future goal, manage multiple bits of information in memory at a time, focus attention, start and manage a task within a timely manner, all while adjusting one’s behaviour and emotions when life throws an unexpected curveball.

 If a child in your class has difficulty in any of these areas, we have some good news for you! Each of these skills can be supported in the classroom when teachers target the underdeveloped executive skills that lie beyond the surface behaviour. Recognizing executive skills during work tasks, or difficulties within these, will help you accurately identify the skill deficits linked to the source of the problem. For example, if a student in your class is constantly missing a pencil or their books, this may be related to a deficit in planning and organizing skills. If the student is good at solving procedural math problems, yet shows extreme difficulty with math word problems, this may be due to a weak working memory and inhibition skills. When a student has difficulty meeting assignment deadlines, adjusting their pace during in-class work, or finishes an assignment early without minimal actual work, they may be struggling with task management skills.

The key to identifying executive skill difficulty is when trying or disruptive behaviours are on-going and are undeterred by rewards or consequences. The best way to support the student with EF difficulties is to look beyond the surface behaviour and address the lagging skills directly. The tools found in the Essential Skills list will facilitate strategy selection and provide skill-targeted solutions to problematic behaviours that prevent your students from reaching their full potential.

For more details about executive skills, please check out our handy infographic to “Teaching with an Executive Lens to Support Positive Mental Health in the Classroom”.