By Anne-Marie Morey – Sourced from the Tutor blog

I have a treat for you today!  One hot topic in the education world today is executive functioning.  Anne-Marie Morey reached out to me to write a post about how to help students that are distracted and disorganized.  I would say that 90% of my students fall into that category!  I am so excited to introduce you to Anne-Marie.  I know she is going to wow you just like she did me.  Thanks Anne-Marie!  -Adrianne

So, your students forget to turn their homework in too?

Mine certainly do.

Maybe you also have students who can’t sit still? Who can’t follow instructions? Who’s backpacks make your recycling bin look organized?

It’s not like your students aren’t capable. They’re bright, imaginative, and kind. Heck, they even fix your pencil sharpener for you!

Despite your best efforts, your students just don’t seem to be getting anywhere.

You might be wondering, “What am I doing wrong?”

If your disorganized, distracted students aren’t making sufficient progress, chances are good they struggle with executive function deficits.

The normal tricks of the trade aren’t going to cut it. You need explicit, strength-based strategies for supporting these different learners.

But first, let’s answer a crucial question with a frequently-misunderstood answer.

 What is executive function, anyway?

Executive function is the ability to set a goal and achieve it. Sounds simple, right?

Actually, it’s pretty darn complex.

In fact, all of us use nearly a dozen sub-skills to set and achieve goals! Executive function experts, Drs. Peg Dawson and Richard Guare, created this list of executive function skills (I’ve added the questions for context):

  • Planning — Can the student identify and carry out the steps to complete a large project?
  • Organization — Can the student keep track of school materials?
  • Time management — Can the student estimate how long it will take to finish a task?
  • Working memory — Can the student remember recently-given instructions?
  • Meta-cognition — Can the student answers questions like “How did I do on this assignment?”
  • Response-inhibition — Can the student think before acting?
  • Emotional control — Can the student cope with everyday frustrations?
  • Sustained attention — Can the student stick with a task?
  • Task initiation — Can the student independently start a project?
  • Flexibility — Can the student “shift gears” when unforeseen circumstances arise?
  • Goal-directed persistence — Can the student persevere, even when a task is challenging?

You might be thinking that these executive function challenges describe kids you’ve known with ADHD. Interestingly, many experts believe that ADHD and executive function deficits are actually the same.

Here’s the good news: Executive function weaknesses are often delayed deficits not absolute losses. As students mature, many of these executive function skills will develop. In the meantime, professional support can help these students feel and be more successful.

As the teacher, you might be thinking, “What can I do right now with this wiggly, disorganized kid?”

This post is for you.

I specialize in teaching children with learning disabilities, with a variety of diagnosed and undiagnosed challenges. Here’s the thing — almost all of my students are challenged by weaker executive function.

In fact, all of us have stronger and weaker executive skills. By identifying our strengths, we can develop strategies to bolster our weaknesses. You may find, as I have, that teaching these skills strengthens your own executive functioning.

There are six effective tools to support students with executive function weaknesses.  Today we’ll touch on the first three. (make sure to come back for the second part of the series)

1.     Teach students to self-monitor their attention

Most kids with executive function weaknesses are distractible. One second you’re reviewing vowel sounds with Liam, and suddenly he’s telling you that his cousin’s dog looks like Chewbacca.

If you feel like you spend your entire session redirecting a student’s attention, what should you do?

 Gently, help the student recognize that they’re not focusing on the task at hand.

The “monkey mind” strategy is a powerful way to teach students to monitor their attention.

FIRST: Explain that kids and adults have minds that wander. That’s what brains do. Normalize the experience by sharing a memory of when your mind wandered. Then, ask your student to share a time when their mind got distracted.

 SECOND: Describe how our minds are a bit like monkeys. They’re mischievous. One second they’re sitting in a tree; the next they’re running through the jungle. Our job is to notice when our “monkey minds” have wandered off and gently bring them back to their tree.

 THIRD: Instruct the student to observe when they notice their mind wandering away. My students sketch a monkey when this happens. Then, when they complete the activity, the student briefly shares their “monkey thought.”

In the beginning, students may need help observing when they become distracted. You can say, “Oh, that’s a ‘monkey thought.’” You can also model observing your own “monkey thoughts.”

2.     Create an environment that promotes attention

Do you find yourself telling your students to put down manipulatives, sit down, or quit fidgeting? Your students aren’t trying to distract themselves.  Sometimes they just have a hard time focusing.

I’m going to be honest with you. Deepening attention takes years. But in minutes, you can change your student’s environment.

 Here’s what you can do to adapt your environment:

  • Make sure your desk is clean.
  • Put distractions out of sight. Ask students to leave phones and toys in their backpacks or another room.
  • Keep your walls free of clutter.

 If you work in someone else’s home, try to:

  • Find a quiet, distraction-free part of the house.
  • Ask family members to avoid interrupting.

3.     Manage time for the student

Kids with executive function weaknesses typically develop their sense of time later than their peers. An hour is a foreign concept. They don’t have a clue how long everyday tasks take.

 These are some easy ways to build time management skills:

  • Maintain a predictable routine in your sessions. Write down your daily schedule and let the student sequence their time with you.
  • Teach your students to use their planner. At the bottom of the article, I share a link to a free workbook with student-tested strategies for organizing homework and assignment due dates.
  • Use the Time Timer to help see time passing.
  • Encourage the student to estimate how long tasks take. Compare their estimates to the actual time elapsed.

As students move into middle school, teachers will expect them to complete long-term projects independently. Work with the student to break projects into smaller parts with due dates.

4.    Work in short bursts

The skills required for strong executive functioning are like a battery — they run out! Some kids have larger batteries than others.

If your students start off strong, but their attention wanes, try to:

  • Reduce the amount of work required for a given task (e.g. five math problems instead of ten).
  • Break larger projects into smaller pieces.
  • Build in frequent breaks. Adrianne shares some great break activities here and here.
  • Provide small rewards, especially for non-preferred activities.

On my podcast for educators, Pamm Scribner, executive function specialist, reveals how she uses brain breaks. She shares how to adapt these strategies for teens.

5.     Build rapport

Boy, kids with executive function weaknesses get blamed a lot.

We’ve all heard it: “They’re lazy! They’re slackers! They’re not living up to their potential!”

When students feel safe and respected, they participate. They “buy” in. Creating a sense of security can be challenging. Here are my go-to strategies:

  • Play to their strengths and affinities. Does your student love cats? Call your local animal shelter to collect facts for math word problems.
  • Incorporate humor. Try teaching reading fluency with joke books.
  • Plan for ups and downs. Executive skills develop inconsistently. Just because you’ve seen a student master a skill at one time, doesn’t mean that he’s able use the skill all the time under any circumstance.

6.     Teach explicitly

 Kids with executive function deficits need additional structure and guidance:

  • Make your rules and instructions clear and brief.
  • Spell out the steps. For example, write down the steps for solving a word problem.
  • Provide rubrics. Show the student how to use rubrics. Students are delighted to learn that teachers reveal exactly what they’re looking for!
  • If the teacher doesn’t provide a rubric, find an example online or create a rubric with the student.
  • Share samples of quality finished products, so students can picture success.
  • Provide a visual guide. Many students can organize paragraphs more easily when they plan with a graphic organizer.

Let’s help these kids succeed!

Kids who struggle with executive function weakness can be challenging. They require more energy, more planning, and more specialized instruction.

But there’s a silver lining here. Energy, planning, and explicit instruction make for good teaching. Period.

My students make me a better teacher. And I love them for that. And I love them for being the creative, sweet, spunky people they are.

These kids are bright and talented, and they need our help to find success.


 Anne-Marie Morey