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Special School District of St. Louis County

Executive Functioning Skills
are Key to Future Independence

Planning, initiating tasks, organizing and managing time are some skills that many people take for granted. But for some, these skills, which are critical for learning and achieving goals, don’t come naturally.

Executive functions are the variety of cognitive processes that help people to navigate, cope with and successfully complete complex tasks. For children, these skills are crucial because they enable students to take on and adapt to multifaceted situations and to develop independence.

“Individuals have strengths and weaknesses in executive functioning skills; however, individuals with disabilities often experience delays in these critical skills,” said Karen Nahnsen, an SSD special education facilitator.  “Executive functioning skills can improve with explicit instruction and practice to improve odds of success in school and work.”

Strategies for Teaching Executive Functioning Skills

Families can help their students develop these skills at home.

At a young age, students can learn to identify their own emotional levels using five-point scales or even colorized zones of regulation. These visual tools allow a child to identify and consider his or her emotional state, and then learn how to cope with the task at hand.

Elementary-aged children can also practice adapting to change by focusing on flexible thinking. Children who are frustrated with a situation that is not going as expected can step back and consider whether the problem is a “big problem” or a “small problem.” By classifying the problem, the child can then work with parents to consider how best to respond to the issue.

To practice goal setting, families can help their children develop goals and action plans. Families can encourage a child to identify a goal, and then identify steps that can be completed along the way to the larger goal. Students can then evaluate their progress along the path to completion.

Finally, gaining experience using working memory can go a long way to helping children learn to tackle complex tasks. Encouraging children to use visualization, acronyms, or to paraphrase complex information can help make larger projects manageable.

As children mature, there are plenty of extracurricular activities that can help continue to develop these executive functioning skills.

  • Competitive sports help children make quick decisions and develop the flexibility to respond to changing game play.
  • Yoga or meditation allows students reduce stress, promotes less reactive decision-making, and provides opportunity to work on metacognition.
  • Music and theater performances allow children to focus on specific tasks and roles, to attend to timing and develop working memory skills.
  • Strategy games and logic puzzles are good for exercising working memory and developing planning and organizational skills.
  • Personal journals are good tools for self-reflection and allow children to explore their own thoughts, feelings, and reactions to situations.

arrow icon Click here for a list of materials about executive functioning skills available from SSD's Family and Community Resource Center.

Information in this article based on: “Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents: A Practical Guide to Assessment and Intervention” by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare.

Updated March 2018

child writing

What Are Some Examples of Executive Functioning Skills?

arrow icon Response Inhibition: Allows someone to pause and evaluate potential responses before taking an action.

arrow icon Working Memory: Crucial for students, as they will need to be able to take in and recollect information while also taking notes, completing assignments or working in groups.

arrow icon Emotional Control: Enables a person to handle his or her emotions in order to successfully complete tasks.

arrow icon Sustain Attention: Ability of a student to overcome distractions such as other students’ behaviors, fatigue or other obstacles in order to successfully complete an assigned task.

arrow icon Task Initiation: Enables students to not only plan a task, but to begin the task in a timely manner.

arrow icon Planning/Prioritizing: Allows a student to identify the steps to completion, assess the time it would take to complete and the best order in which to complete those tasks.

arrow icon Organization: Ability to establish procedures for keeping track of material.

arrow icon Time Management: Ability to assess how much time a task will take to complete, the time that the individual has to complete the task and to follow through and stay within those time constraints.

arrow icon Goal-Directed Persistence: Ability to set a goal and follow through on completion, without being sidetracked by competing interests.

arrow icon Flexibility: When a student manages to adapt when a situation does not meet expectations or overcome setbacks.

arrow icon Metacognition: Key for students to monitor their own emotions, to assess their own progress and to make adjustments as necessary to ensure completion.

arrow icon Stress Tolerance: Enables students to cope with pressure to succeed, uncertainty and other stressful situations.

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Special School District of St. Louis County (SSD) is a leader in providing special education services to students with disabilities and also provides a wide range of career and technical education programs.
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