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Supporting Students With Executive Functioning Difficulties: Planning & Processes

What is Executive Functioning?

Executive functioning (EF) is comprised of a series of cognitive skills that allow for successful planning, time management, organization, emotional regulation, attention, self-monitoring, and perspective taking. People with EF weaknesses can struggle with working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control ( When someone has difficulty with executive functioning skills, the effects can be observed across activities and the issues manifest in different ways. Someone can demonstrate difficulty with 2 or 3 EF skills, while others demonstrate consistent difficulty with more skills.

This resource from outlines in-depth information about the critical skills involved in executive functioning, but this article is going to focus on how key EF skills can manifest for students when starting, planning, or following through on projects and academic processes.

Trouble Getting Started?

This is a common issue in classrooms where independent work is an expectation. When a teacher hands out an assignment that isn't clearly defined or closed-ended, students with executive functioning difficulties can't seem to get started! Weaknesses with planning, organization, and time management often have students dragging through the process when their peers are seemingly progressing easily! Writing assignments and longer multi-step projects often cause the most stress, since students with EF issues are not able to break down the assignments into manageable parts.

Some students will have difficulty retaining and then following multiple steps in a sequence, even if the steps have been outlined for them. Working memory difficulties can cause frustration for teachers and students when directions are not remembered or followed appropriately.

Outlining a Process with Low-Tech Visual Supports

Consider using visuals to support students with working memory, organization, and planning. For younger students, this could be as simple as a "first, then" board with photos or text of the expected tasks. If they're able to move beyond a supported 2-step sequence, add a third task with a "first, then, last" visual.

For writing assignments, these visuals can look like graphic organizers, story webs, story maps, or recording oral rehearsals to prompt writing ideas. For high and low tech supports for writing, check out our blog on Supporting Kids with Writing for more ideas!

High Tech Supports for Process and Organization

For older students (and adults!), check out web-based project management tools like Trello or KanbanFlow - which allow for the outlining of a process (that you determine) and the visual representation of where a student may be working in that process by clicking and dragging "cards" to different columns. Because these apps are offered across platforms and can be accessed from different devices - Chromebooks, iPads, etc. - parents will also be able to support the process at home!

Here is a great tutorial video on how Trello supports to-do lists, multi-step projects, and working memory so that students can where they were in a process when they have to leave and return back to the task another time!

Kanban Flow offers additional features that promote productivity such as a Pomodoro timer that promotes on-task work and task limits to prevent overload in certain steps of a process. While the paid features of both programs may be suited for collaborative teams in the workplace, the free versions of both Trello and KanbanFlow are sufficient for students with executive functioning needs.

Tips & Takeaways

Of course, like with all assistive technology and teaching strategies, there are always more programs that what we have space to mention in a brief blog article! Take these tips as starting points and consider other ways that can help your student with executive functioning weaknesses develop the process and organizational skills that they'll need to be fully independent! Remember that executive functioning skills can and do need to be directly taught to some students, so anything you can do to support their skill development will help them succeed!


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