Executive Functioning with Diverse Learners in the Classroom


Daniel Vollrath, Ed.D. (@HabitsofMindInc) is a special education teacher at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in New Jersey, and a United States Professional Development Trainer for the Habits of Mind Institute. As a current educational leader within the classroom, Daniel’s best practices, strategies, goals, classroom culture, and interactions with students with a learning disability are centered around the Habits of Mind.

Daniel will be presenting on select topics in Special Education & Habits of Mind. Please feel free to email any questions or ideas you may have in regard to topics – In addition, follow Daniel on Twitter – @HabitsofMindInc, Facebook, and LinkedIn. 

It is early November and nearing the end of quarter one for 22 sophomore students within a inclusive English classroom. Since the beginning of the year students have been consistent with their routines. All students are outgoing and respectful individuals although present various unsuccessful habits. Five students consistently come unprepared, four students are disorganized and can never find their homework, many students are constantly texting and checking their phones causing them to miss information, and almost half of the class can never complete an assigned project on time. Some days the classroom depicts and feels like the picture below. What is the teacher to do?


If you have a classroom like this, hopefully this blog will lend some insight and strategies on how to approach a change for a more effective learning environment while heightening your ability to recognize the importance of executive functioning skills within your students.


What is Executive Functioning?


Executive functioning (EF) is an umbrella term for the processes that serves as a supervisory role in thinking and behavior (Cooper-Kahn & Foster, 2013). Serving as an overseer to oneself in any task or assignment is critical for success. Take for example the role of a project manager. This individual must be able to analyze, plan, develop, adjust, organize and prepare—all while maintaining the responsibility of others to accomplish the goals for the job. As educators, we have a similar role to ensure that we engage students in purposeful, goal-directed, and future oriented behaviors. We are the project managers, guiding our students toward developing the EF skills they need to successfully navigate and complete tasks with success. In order for this to occur, it is important to understand the core executive functioning skills beneath this umbrella:

Planning and Organizing

The ability to take a task and break it down into smaller steps in order to reach a goal.

Children with EF weaknesses tend to not successfully organize information mentally, while taking the same approach with organizing information physically. For example, taking a gander into a students book bag can give you a wealth of understanding about their ability to plan and organize. It is important to relay the importance of keeping order and focus throughout the school day. Finding time within the classroom to practice this action will ultimately improve structure and flow within instruction time.

Working Memory

The ability to hold onto information long enough in order to remember and use that relevant information while in the middle of an activity.

Within learning one of the most important skills is the ability to gather information, retain it, and coordinate it with new input in order to complete a task. This skill is one that people use all the time in all settings of life and don’t even realize it. In life outside of school, people within all professions rely on this skill to succeed and complete job tasks. A great example would be a chef. In the kitchen a chef needs to remember all the ingredients for certain recipes, cooking times, measurements, and order of steps within the cooking process. Children who have trouble with working memory often have difficulty remembering instructions, recalling rules to a game, or completing tasks that require retrieving important information.


The ability to begin a task and generate ideas without procrastination.

Instead of pushing the “go” button and getting started on something, students with initiation deficit push things off until later. Many times children may have every intention to get started on a task, and even have a plan in mind although for some reason can’t get going. Teachers need mindful strategies and supports for enhancing this skill, such as cueing techniques, specific routines, visuals, and scheduling deadlines for assignments. For example, a teacher assigns a health project that follows a timeline of three weeks. Each day the teacher points to a visual reminder of the dates, provides a quick check-in with every student, and engages in a routine familiar to students that requires focus on the project.

Task Monitoring

The ability to monitor one’s own performance toward a goal.

To be successful in any task we must have the ability to measure our performance against the expected standard. Part of this process involves recognizing where you are on a task and adjusting plans when necessary. The complexity of task monitoring arises when an assignment requires multiple steps and requirements. As teacher it is always important to support students with a task monitoring weakness by collaboratively chunking assignments, developing a monitoring plan, and by simply checking in with them throughout the course of the project/assignment. An example of students exhibiting task monitoring within the classroom may look like this: students have 30 minutes to complete a math quiz consisting of six word problems. In order to finish they need to be mindful of the time spent on each problem. They need to focus on completing each problem, as well as devoting time at the end of the quiz to check their work…that is task monitoring!


The ability to observe one’s behavior in relation to the behavioral expectations.

When exhibiting poor self-monitoring students most often become a distraction to themselves and others within a learning environment. Effective self-monitoring allows someone to adjust their behavior in response to environmental feedback from peers. For example, a student typing up the final results from a science lab. On his laptop many windows are open allowing for the opportunity to be distracted from the main task—completing the lab results. This student needs to monitor his progress and behavior in completing this assignment, if not, the task will be incomplete due to the inability to self-monitor. One way to enhance self-monitoring is to practice mental focus through interval training. Dedicate time each class to focusing on an activity without any distractions. Start with three minutes of focus and build onto that time each day.


The ability to monitor your impulsivity.

The act of taking action before thinking about the consequences in many cases can create a problematic situation. In the classroom the ability to not “put on the brakes” during certain times of instruction can impede the learning of all students. For example, during a conversation about the Civil War in history class, a few students keep interrupting the teacher by shouting out questions. One way to remedy this behavior is to create a culture where students raise their hand or wait until the teacher is done speaking to ask a question. Managing impulsivity takes time and mindfulness in order to maintain.

Emotional Control

The ability to understand and reflect on one’s own feelings.

In order to guide emotional responses in the right direction we must be able to recognize our feelings. Individuals with weak emotional control tend to have immediate and poorly controlled emotional reactions. When someone can sit back and internalize their thoughts and feelings in reference to a situation that sends emotional arousal, they will be more inclined to react in a positive way. For example, receiving a poor test grade can bring forth anxiety, confusion, and bitterness. Instead of reacting in a negative attitude (cursing, bantering, arguing), taking a more positive approach by making a list of questions to ask the teacher after class, reflecting on specific questions, and being proactive to understanding the outcome could lead to a better opportunity to improve learning, and possibly the score.

Shifting Thinking and Behaviors

The ability to transition from one activity to another.

Changing gears within the learning environment can bring forth feelings of uncertainty. Not knowing what will come next, or simply not being able to make a shift from a topic discussion to a writing assignment, can alter focus and attitude. Even an unexpected situation that requires the ability to be flexible can occur, and throw off an individual with weakness in this area. For example, in the the middle of math class during an exam…the fire alarm goes off! This is an unexpected event that now has interrupted concentration. What to do now? How about a few minutes of practicing mindfulness, restating the directions and expectations for the quiz again, or asking students if they have any questions before getting back into work mode. These are just a few ideas that could refocus all students to the task at hand.


What’s the Connection to Habits of Mind?

When all of these core executive skills work together the outcome should always elicit smooth and efficient functioning. Although another critical component to this process includes the ability to practice and display productive behaviors, or otherwise recognized as Habits of Mind. When executive skills and selected Habits of Mind dovetail with one another it should strengthen the process toward success. Imagine a long-term project that requires reading a 300-page novel, producing a poster on thematic ideas, writing a two page analysis, and presenting all of this in front of the class—and you have three weeks to complete it. What executive skills above do you feel are important? If you said all of them, you are right! Now, throw in the Habits of Mind. What habits do you believe successfully combine with EF skills to enhance this process? Here are three that come to mind.

Metacognition (Thinking about your Thinking)

Be aware of your thoughts, feelings, and strategies for this long-project. Take some time to set up a plan of action and focus on being mindful throughout the whole process of this long-term project. Below is a question to consider before beginning the project.

How are you going to Plan and Organize? Think about the best planning and organizational strategy for this project. Reflecting on past projects similar to this you should have an idea of the best methods fit for you.

Managing Impulsivity

Thinking before action, remain calm and thoughtful. As stress, anxiety, and procrastination play a role in many things we do in life, it is imperative to place your mind in a state of focus while alleviating stressful feelings and an anxious state of mind. Important questions to consider are:

What strategies will help Task Monitor & Self Monitor? By setting a timeline for the project, and a work schedule for yourself to follow, the more inclined you will be in finishing this task with less stress and anxiety.

How can I monitor my Inhibition? You know there is a speaking portion to the project and you hate to present in front of people. Your heart races, you sweat, and stumble on your words. This is an ideal opportunity to explore Taking a Responsible Risk. Make an effort to engage in a technique that you never tried before although think might be successful in minimizing the fear of speaking in front on an audience. An effective approach might be to practice your lines everyday, take deep breaths, and focus on communicating information at a slow pace. And, if you are mindful of Thinking and Communicating with Clarity and Precision while you are in front of people, that could make a world of difference in how well you convey information and pace your speaking.


Persevering through a task, remaining focused, and not giving up. Pushing through distractions and obstacles is key here. It is easy to set a schedule and say you are going to follow it, but actually going through with those actions is another piece. It is tempting to watch a television show, check out YouTube, or even play some XBox instead of doing some work. This is where you remind yourself that you need to stick to the schedule and goal you set for yourself…and be mindful of practicing this persistence.

What are some ways to build the process of Initiation? Being that it is the end of the year, and this is the last long project you need to complete, you know it will be an issue to get motivated and started every time you sit down to work. Think about the best time of day and/or place that stimulates the most focus and success in completing work towards this project.


A Blend of Executive Functioning and Habits of Mind:
Strategies and Tips for the Classroom

In this section I will present two strategies that can be implemented immediately into your classroom. These strategies incorporate the blending of Habits of Mind along with Executive Functioning skills. It is important to bring both of these skills together in order for students to grasp the supervisory role of their thinking and behaviors in connection to the mindfulness of the habits that reinforce the productive actions they should bring forth. So, try these two simple strategies out in your classroom.

4-Corner Focus Groups

This strategy can be implemented within any classroom as a means to recall prior information, serve as a questioning session, review details for a project, promote organization, or to simply clarify information for upcoming instruction. Within the first five minutes of class allow this time for students to best get themselves set for the upcoming topic. It could look something like the activity below:

Last class you started a writing assignment with your students. Today is the second day working on this piece and it is important for all students to understand the directions, focus, and process. Within the first 5 minutes of class students will select a corner of the room that best fits their needs for supervising their thinking and behaviors for the class. One corner will focus on questions they have about the assignment, another corner for getting organized for the writing assignment, another corner for sharing ideas with peers for suggestions, and another corner for students who are confused with what needs to be completed. The teacher will meet with each group to consult, answer questions, and support in anyway necessary. In addition, students will be able to engage in these Habits of Mind – thinking interdependently, questioning and problem posing, and thinking about thinking (Metacognition).

Three Minute Build-In

At the beginning of each class allow three minutes as a means to get students into preparation of supervising their thinking and behaviors. This is their time to mentally prepare themselves for what is ahead for the class. As a teacher it is important to have the agenda on the board as a visual prompt for how students can get prepared for what is ahead. For many students the transition from one class to another is difficult. Getting focused, organized, and calming themselves down (decreasing anxiety and stress) from the distraction of coming from another class is critical to beginning class with positive start.

Before beginning the daily build-in with students make sure to use the language of the Habits of Mind and Executive Functioning skills. For example, when all students are in their seats and ready to go forth with the build-in, a statement like this might foster thoughts: “Within the next three minute be mindful of how you are going to persist in building initiation with activities in class today, how you are going to plan and organize yourself in order to manage your impulsivity, and be metacognitive in the transitions we make from one activity to another.” A simple statement like this sets the tone, builds common language, and models the connection between the habits and EF skills.

It is always important to take strategies and think about how they could connect to your classroom. How do they connect to your subject area, assignments, and culture of your classroom? Most importantly, model, practice, and use the common language of Habits of Mind and EF skills with consistency.


This post is part of a series. View the entire Special Education series by Dan Vollrath here.

See all posts from Dan Vollrath.


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