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What are executive functioning skills and how can students strengthen them?

What are executive functioning skills? Find out here and learn how to help students strengthen them for classroom success.
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Think about all the things you do during a work day at school. On top of that, you have bills to manage, grocery lists to organize, laundry, meals to make. If you have kids of your own, you probably have piano lessons, playdates and sports to juggle, too. It’s a lot to keep on top of as an adult. But your executive functioning skills help you succeed in day-to-day life. Our learners have assignments, assessments, permission slips, school communications and Google files to keep track of. Their executive functioning skills are not fully developed yet, though, so they need support to be successful.

What are executive functioning skills? We’ll explore what they are and how they contribute to the overall success of diverse learners. 

What are executive functioning skills for students?

Executive functioning skills are mental processes that are a key part to academic progress. Some people describe this set of skills as the air traffic controller or the CEO of the brain. This part of the brain helps us direct our behavior and emotions. While a learner’s subject knowledge is important, it’s their ability to plan, organize, manage workload and regulate their behavior that determines how they use that knowledge. 

For example, I had several learners in the gifted program with high intelligence. But they had difficulty keeping organized and managing all of their due dates. They had papers stuffed into the bottom of their backpack, folders with only a couple pieces of paper and missing assignments in the gradebook. Sound familiar? Even though they knew the English and social studies content, their grades were suffering because they needed help with executive function.

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University writes, “Research on the developing brain shows us that early childhood experiences build the foundation for a skilled workforce, a responsible community, and a thriving economy.” Children need to develop executive functioning skills so they’re later able to make positive contributions to society, succeed at a job and live independently. 

We aren’t born with these skills, but they begin in one area of the brain. The prefrontal cortex is the area responsible for making decisions and solving problems. Because a learner’s prefrontal cortex is not fully formed until the age of 25, they need practice and support in building executive functioning abilities. 

There are several executive functioning skills that learners need to strengthen so they can make progress in school and beyond.

Working memory 

First, working memory is the skill of retaining information and recalling the information later. For example, learners use their working memory to remember steps, instructions and subject matter content.


The skill of organizing is being able to arrange content in a structured way. For instance, learners need to organize their class materials in sequential order or by subject. They may need to organize assignments by a due date or organize slides in a certain order for a project. Organizing ensures that they stay on top of what they need to accomplish and understand the content they are learning.


Planning is the process of thinking about the future and goals and designing a process to make the goals happen. This includes prioritizing different activities in order to accomplish tasks. Learners need to plan how they’ll finish homework assignments, complete steps for a project or prepare for an assessment. 


The skill of self-monitoring is evaluating how well you’re performing a task. To self-monitor, learners should check in and reflect on their progress, and then adjust along the way. One example would be a learner self-monitoring how well they can conjugate a verb in Spanish. If they need more practice, they would go back and restudy and adjust or ask their teacher for help.   


Self-control relates to physical or emotional impulses and behavior. Having self-control often means that a person remains calm without overreacting. This can be difficult for children and teens who are still developing this executive functioning skill. An example would be losing a basketball game in P.E. A child with stronger self-control would not have an outburst, while a child with weaker self-control might act out. 

Time management

Time management is the ability to keep an organized schedule, complete activities within certain timeframes and turn in assignments by due dates. Time management requires focus, goal setting and productivity. It’s also important to complete activities effectively on a schedule without rushing. 

For instance, a high school senior may have a packed schedule of classes, soccer matches and school club meetings. They need time management skills in order to stay on top of their commitments. A learner with poor time management skills may wait until the last minute to study for an exam and not do as well as they could.


This skill is related to focusing on the task at hand. We ask learners every day for their attention, whether it’s listening to instructions, staying focused on an activity or staying away from distractions online. 

Flexible thinking 

The skill of flexible thinking is being able to change your thinking based on rules and situations or being able to respond to changes in an environment. There are several ways that flexible thinking manifests, including changing a communication tactic in response to someone, trying a new strategy when one doesn’t work, accepting another learner’s perspective and adapting to a problem. Learners also need to be able to transition between activities and be flexible when they have new information. Overall, kids need the skills to cope in unpredictable situations and pivot when necessary. 

What is the impact of executive functioning on learning?

What is executive dysfunction?

While we’ve been discussing executive function, there is also executive dysfunction. When a condition disrupts the brain’s ability to control behavior, emotions or thoughts, this can result in executive dysfunction. Examples include being easily distracted, spending too much time focusing on one thing, struggling to transition between activities, having difficulty controlling behavior or emotions and struggling to initiate a task. 

Does ADHD affect executive function? 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “The estimated number of children aged 3–17 years ever diagnosed with ADHD, according to a national survey of parents, is 6 million.” Children, teens and even adults with ADHD may have difficulty paying attention and controlling impulsive behaviors. 

This makes it more challenging for those with ADHD to use executive functioning skills to make academic progress. In 2019, Education Week reported that one in five learners with significant ADHD don’t get the help they need in school. “The gap between symptoms and services was particularly wide for adolescents and for students from low-income backgrounds or who were English-language learners.”

According to ADDitude Magazine, “Executive functioning develops more slowly in students with ADHD. Teachers may notice delays in the mental processes that help children concentrate, plan, and organize their classroom work.” 

For these reasons, it’s important for educators to support every learner in their classroom with creative strategies and the right kind of tools. ADDitude Magazine recommends empowering learners by explicitly teaching executive functioning language to everyone in the classroom. “When educators assist students with identifying their executive functioning strengths and areas of need, they also teach them how to advocate for their own needs in the classroom and beyond.”

How do you help learners who struggle with executive functioning skills?

Here are some ways to help your learners when they struggle with skills such as organizing, self-monitoring, working memory and planning.

✔️  Break down activities into shorter and more manageable tasks. This especially helps kids who get overwhelmed with longer, more in-depth projects.

✔️  Help them create a checklist to stay organized and self-monitor. This especially supports learners who have a hard time getting started. 

✔️  Have them use a student planner to develop working memory and the skill of planning. 

✔️  Display questions that learners can ask themselves to practice executive functioning. 

✔️  Display a schedule with time blocks for activities or the school day.

✔️  Use color-coding to help with organization or planning.

How do you strengthen executive functioning skills in the classroom with tools?

The Center on the Developing Child also writes, “Adults can facilitate the development of a child’s executive function skills by establishing routines, modeling social behavior, and creating and maintaining supportive, reliable relationships.” 

By scaffolding and guiding, educators can help learners develop executive functioning skills. Here are ways that Hāpara tools help students develop the skills they need to be successful in school and in life.

Working memory 

Hāpara Student Dashboard is an online student planner that brings all of a student’s learning activities and class communications into one spot. Students will see their Hāpara work, Google Classroom assignments, Google Classroom announcements, assignment notifications, emails and Google files. Anytime they visit their Student Dashboard, they’ll see reminders about upcoming assignments and due dates.

Sometimes learners forget where a Google file is stored in their Google Drive. In Hāpara Teacher Dashboard and Hāpara Highlights, teachers can access learners’ full Google Drives and help them find a file.


Hāpara Workspace allows teachers to organize all of a lesson, unit or project’s content into one hub. Learners will see their goals, resources, activities and rubrics in an easy-to-follow layout, without needing to visit multiple places to find it all. This support helps them stay on top of their tasks and they can see how one piece of learning content flows into another.

Student Dashboard also makes it easy for a student to stay organized. Students can click on different tabs and menus to view Workspaces, Google Classroom assignments, Google files, class announcements, returned work, graded work or emails. It keeps everything organized in one spot, giving learners the support they need.


Student Dashboard also helps learners plan for their school day or plan ahead to meet goals. When they click the “To do” tab, they’re able to view assignments with upcoming due dates (and those that are overdue). They can also look at Google Classroom assignments with no due dates. With this information, they can prioritize what needs to be completed first. 

Workspace also helps learners plan and prioritize. Teachers can include sections in sequence and due dates for activities to help learners meet goals.


Student Dashboard also helps learners check in on their progress. When their teacher returns work with feedback or submits a grade for an assignment, learners will see that information in their “Notifications” section.

In Workspace, learners can also see whether or not they have started or submitted their assignments and scores they have received.


Highlights allows teachers to help learners self-regulate their impulses online and provide structure so they aren’t faced with distractions. Teachers can use the guided browsing feature to set up browsing sessions that focus learners on a set of websites or filter out distracting websites. 

Teachers can also close learners’ browser tabs that are off-task. When they do, Highlights will ask them to provide the learner with a reason for closing their tab so they can build their digital citizenship skills and make a better decision next time.

Teachers can also help learners regulate their emotions by integrating social emotional learning into instruction. First, the Highlights messaging feature allows teachers to build positive relationships with learners and check in with them day to day. They can send an individual learner a message that will discreetly pop up on their screen.

They can also send the class a Google Form with SEL check-in questions. To do this, they can use the “Share links” feature to instantly open the link onto learners’ screens. Teachers can also add SEL check-ins into a Workspace. 

Time management

Hāpara tools help learners develop time management skills, too. When teachers set up a guided browsing session, they can set up the session for a specific duration to help learners manage their time. They can also add due dates to assignments in Workspace that will clearly appear to learners.


Teachers can also use Highlights features to ensure learners pay attention to their learning tasks. Sometimes a teacher may need to get the class’s attention or a group’s attention to make an announcement or reteach a concept. The “Pause Screens” feature locks learners’ screens temporarily so they can’t browse the internet. 

Another feature, “Freeze tabs,” freezes learners’ browsers on the tabs they currently have open. This is a great way to keep learners focused on an activity when they need support. As mentioned, teachers can also set up or even schedule guided browsing sessions for learners.

Flexible thinking 

Flexible thinking takes consistent practice, but teachers can give learners practice by offering opportunities for collaboration. That way they’ll get practice with communication and hearing new perspectives. In Workspace, teachers can quickly set up groups and assign resources or activities to differentiated groups or groups for collaborative activities or projects.

Explore how an educator uses Hāpara Highlights as a coaching tool for social and emotional learning in her classroom.

Developing a classroom culture of resilience with Hāpara Highlights mockup small

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