Learn Executive Functioning Skills

Do you have students with ADD or ADHD? Or maybe a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Perhaps they have another reason they need help with their executive functioning skills, or maybe the reason isn’t clear. Regardless of the reason, you can help your students learn executive functioning skills.


Labels are your best friend. And for special education, we need to think beyond word labels and think real photo labels. When I am setting up my classroom, I like to take pictures of everything I want labeled. I use the picture of the objects as my background and I type over the objects with the word to promote literacy. This way students who are on a concrete learning level and need real pictures (not even drawings), can match the picture to get and put away supplies while still getting text exposure. It does take some time to do, but it is well worth it. Get my FREE template so you can drop in your own photos and DIY your labels to match the exact items in your classroom.


You’ve probably heard about using schedules for students with autism, but schedules are great for a wide range of students, including ones who need to learn executive functioning skills. Your students may or may not need to know what is coming up during the day, but they do need help planning out their study schedule, especially for students in middle school and high school.

I’ve worked with several students on creating a study schedule. After we schedule in all the things they have to do like school time, transportation time, meals, hygiene needs, practices, and anything else they must do, the first thing I have my students schedule is time for fun. It always surprises them. It’s absolutely essential for any student’s mental health to have built in time for recreation. When I was a student, I worked too hard. I was valedictorian, but I hardly ever got time to be a kid. It wasn’t good for me, and it isn’t good for your students either.

After your students have blocked out their must dos and their fun time, then you can start assigning time for homework assignments. This will vary significantly based on a student’s grade and course demands. Get input from the student on about how long it is usually takes them to complete something and why. If your older students are chatting online while doing their work, it will take them longer. Encourage them to set the phone aside so they can get done more quickly and have more free time. Usually I find kids are open to this when they realize it benefits them, and isn’t just an adult being anti-fun.

The schedule is a living document. I work with my students to update their study schedules frequently. I check in with them to find out what is and isn’t working for them. This questioning process helps them internalize that dialogue so when they are an adult, they will know how to make adjustments to their own schedule accordingly. I’ve used this strategy with students with ADD and TBI, and it’s worked wonders.


Ever woken up and knew you had something important going on but couldn’t remember what it was? It’s awful. Help your students avoid this agony by encouraging them to make lists, especially using technology whenever possible.

When I was in school, I would always loose my list of homework assignments. Eventually, I moved to writing the list on my hand throughout the day. For years, my hands were covered in blue, black, and purple ink. I don’t recommend this strategy for your students. We’ve evolved since then. If your student has technology access, have them write their assignments in a program like Google Keep that allows them to check things off as they are done. It’s free and simple to use. It’s also shareable, so students can share the list with their special education teacher, parents, or both. One point for accountability.

If a student doesn’t have access to technology, a good old-fashioned student planner can work well. I’ve used these with students too. Some students get more buy in with these when they get to use fun colors and highlights to color code the due dates and subjects. I like students to be able to choose their own planner or have the freedom to decorate it. They need to have ownership of this item so that they will want to keep track of it. Kids don’t want a basic black planner that looks like a 50 something CEO uses. Let them use that when they ARE 50 something CEOs. Yes, it can 100% happen for our special education students. (See Richard Branson (Virgin), Ingvar Kampvrad (Ikea), Barbara Corcoran and Daymond John (both on Shark Tank), and bunches more.)


It might sound nuts, but this is a strategy I picked up from a personal trainer friend. She taught me about Tabata Timers, which break down High Intensity Interval Training sessions into bite sized pieces. In the productivity world, this can be called the Pomodoro Technique. It breaks work down into smaller intervals. Usually they are 25 minute work sessions with 5 minute breaks, but you can absolutely shorten this to meet students’ needs. There are tons of apps and some Chrome extensions for making this technique easy to implement. In fact, I use the Tomato Timer one myself sometimes. Not everybody has a great internal clock, so these timers really help students stick to their schedule, a big part of learning executive functioning skills.

Curious about other Chrome Extensions to support students? You can find my recommendations here.

Chunk It

How do you eat an elephant?

One bite at a time.

As a little girl, I loved to eat raw carrots. Back then, we didn’t have baby carrots, we just had big chunky carrots. I would almost always bite off more than I could chew and have to spit it out in the trash can. I needed guidance to make sure I didn’t try too much all at once.

This happens to our students with work. It’s not always that they can’t do the work. It’s just that when looking at it from start to finish, it’s way too intimidating. Help students focus on one task at a time, so they don’t freeze up. When confronted with too much to do, it really can prompt a fear response in kids (or adults). That’s going to look like fight, flight, or freeze in your classroom. Avoid the behaviors (fights), flights (elopement), or freezing (work refusal). Don’t tell students to climb a mountain. Tell them to take one step forward. To learn executive functioning skills, it is all about learning to break down tasks into smaller bits. We have to model that before our students will do it on their own.

Direct Teaching of Organization

My mom doesn’t have a diagnosis of ADD, but we both suspect she may have it. She tells me stories of daydreaming out the window when she was in school. She was a good student none the less (she’s wicked smart). However, physical organization has always been difficult for her.

Last year, I spent some time with my parents to help my dad after a major surgery. During that time, I started to help Mom organize the house. Love her to bits, but it really needed it. I wasn’t directly taught this skill, but eventually managed to pick it up. I helped her get a system in place for the bathroom linen cabinet, under the kitchen sink, and cleaned out the garage. Instead of just turning her loose to figure out how to use it, I showed her and explained the whole system. Because I didn’t have time to help her do the whole house, I connected her with a professional organizer, Lisa Sims. She was awesome and continued the process of not just organizing but explaining the system to my mom. Since then, Mom has been able to keep things organized much easier. She just needed direct instruction.

We often don’t spend enough time teaching physical organization. We assume students get these skills at home, but often that’s not the case. If you want your students to have a clean desk, show them how to do it. And provide regular time for students to work on it. During desk cleaning time, put up a visual on the Smart Board of what clean desks should look like. This will help kids see if they need to keep going or if they are meeting the expectation. You can also partner students. Pair your neat students with your kids who need assistance.

Your students will benefit from direct teaching that supports executive functioning skills. These skills are crucial for almost anything your student will want to do in the future. These skills are teachable and will make a world of difference for your kids. When they learn executive functioning skills, they become more empowered to take charge of their own learning.

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