Who Are the Learners in Our Executive Functioning 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, Executive Functioning, & 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.



In the Disney movie Inside Out, two powerful messages are relayed in how children see the world. The first is that our realities, experiences, and memories are what build emotions. The second is that no matter what we do in life, it is important to understand our own feelings and thoughts as well as others.

The main character Riley, an 11 year old girl who has a strong and established sense of self, until she is uprooted from her life into an new one overnight—literally, struggles with the emotions and thoughts of this drastic change. Her journey takes place through the eyes of cartoon characters that are her emotions inside her head: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust. These emotions compete with one another in reference to what’s happening in Riley’s life. At first she tries to adjust by assuming her joyful persona and displaying a positive attitude—yet in the end, that doesn’t work.

The idea is that all emotions, positive and negative, must be experienced in order for growth to happen in understanding yourself and others. And controlling these emotions in day-to-day experiences is essential for learning how to deal with the stress and anxiety that life presents. In the end, Riley learns that acknowledging and understanding her emotions lends significant value to a healthy, productive, and deeper perspective of others in life.


So what’s the connection to the classroom?

Often, as teachers, we don’t take the time to consider who our students are, both “inside and out.” Each school year brings a new group of students, personalities, cultural backgrounds, family experiences, strengths, weaknesses, areas of struggles, interests, and levels of achievement. These are attributes that as teachers we need to identify. This can be done through conversations, writing prompts, conferencing, speaking with parents, observations, prior year teacher reports, and by simply building a rapport with students. Although, what is blind to most teachers is the ability to read into students’ minds, emotions, and feelings. This is where emotional intelligence comes into play for teachers.

Emotional intelligence can be explained in a multitude of ways although in this blog it is defined as “the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and emotions of others.” In the context of a classroom, identifying emotions of students from their interactions, active role in engagements, anxiousness, delay in processing information, lack of focus, and stressful physical states within learning environments are just a few clues that are important to pick up on. But in order for teachers to pick up on these clues, and physically act on them, takes an understanding of perspective, “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes”—those shoes being students’. By simply asking yourself, “How would I feel if I were confused with these directions?”, or “If I did not have enough time to process that question and answer it, would I be anxious and stressed as well? After I did not have an answer to that question, would that be on my mind the rest of the class? And, would I not be able to concentrate on anything else?” These are just a few examples of what it is like to have a sense of emotional intelligence and understand students outlook on situations.

Once one can understand their students “inside and out,” developing an executive functioning plan is a critical response to ameliorating areas within the classroom and learning struggles, as well as decreasing levels of anxiety and stress that may impede the process of learning.


Who are these students? How can a blend of Emotional Intelligence, Executive Functioning, and Habits of Mind support these students? What does this “blend” look like?



“What is blind to MOST teachers is that executive functioning deficits in students need to be addressed and taught much like teaching any other skill set.”

Cooper-Kahn & Forster (2013)

Just as it is important to build emotional intelligence within ourselves, it is equally important to develop an effective game plan on how to respond to the emotional responses we observe within students. One way to do this is to identify issues and histories of students in your classroom. Some students may present certain attributes stemming from a disorder, learning disability, and/or symptom, while others may just present weaknesses within particular EF skills that may interfere with their learning. Either way, it is important to build an awareness of your learners, as well as identify your Emotional Intelligence (EI) in regard to the area of concern.

Below I describe five conditions where students may struggle. For each condition I provide a brief description. Additionally, I present my personal EI thought process and question(s) for each condition in order to gain an understanding of perspective, personal recommended HOM and EF skills, and last, an example/strategy for infusing HOM and EF skills into the classroom setting.

NOTE: **The EI question(s) is coming from my perspective within the classroom and personal experience within learning — as well as, trying to put myself in the shoes of my students. The EI Thoughts & Questions are the considered my Self-Talk, Perceptive, and Flashback to life as a student or prior professional experience within the classroom. The Recommended HOM and EF skills are the ones I believe best connect from my experience in working with children in the classroom with these areas of concern. Example/strategies are ones I truly have implemented within the classroom.**

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Students with ADHD often battle with focusing, transitioning from an activity or mind-set to another, sustaining attention, and impulsiveness. These challenges intervene with managing demands, sticking to goals, and completing assignments. Energy can easily be depleted more rapidly than other students due to consistent distractions. Interventions in teaching executive routines and building skills are critical for managing and coordinating learning tasks.

EI Thoughts & Question:

I know when I was a student I struggled with transitioning from one mind-set to another. This demand from teachers decreased my ability to attain information and do well on assignments. I could never focus and maintain attention within my classes as well. From my point of view everything was just too fast paced, which developed into a snowball effect, anxiety led to stress, which created a problem with focus and comprehension, and in the end put me in a position where I had no clue which direction to go. So, it is easy for me to relate to students with ADHD and what they go through. A question I ask myself as a teacher for assisting students in this area is:

What strategies can I put in place to help my students with structure, increase attention, and create a pace that helps eliminate confusion and feeling overloaded with work?

Recommended Habits of Mind and Executive Functioning Skills:

HOM: Managing Impulsivity, Metacognition, Thinking and Communicating with Clarity and Precision, Listening with Understanding and Empathy

EF: Inhibition, Emotional Control, Self-Monitoring


A simple strategy to decrease students ADHD, and impulsive behaviors while maintaining attention is to use a self-monitoring scale. This scale allows students to check their behaviors every 5-minutes with a check mark. The scale can range from 0 (focused) to 10 (unfocused). This strategy will allow students to practice mindfulness with the HOM of: metacognition, manage impulsivity, and listening with understanding. In addition, they will physically act on the EF functions of: emotional control, self-monitoring, and inhibition.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Often students with autism spectrum disorders show impaired executive functioning. Difficulties with communication, interaction, and behaviors vary in the degree of severity. These students are more likely to display a lack of impulsivity, poor planning, disorganization, and difficulty self-monitoring.

EI Thoughts & Question:

In my experience with students with ASD, recognizing the difficulty in communicating with others, which in turn sparks negative behaviors that are hard to control, I know it is important to find ways to alleviate this struggle. I think about what it must be like for students who have this issue, it must be so trying and stressful. Even I can be impulsive, lose control of focus, and struggle to get back on task when it comes to certain assignments. Two questions I have to better assist students with these behaviors are:

What is the best approach or strategy to diminishing the frustration when being unable to communicate? Can I create a visual or prompt that can help the whole class, but in particular students with Autism?

Recommended Habits of Mind and Executive Functioning Skills:

HOM: Gathering Data through all Senses, Persisting, Managing Impulsivity, Applying Past Knowledge to New Situations

EF: Planning and Organizing, Working Memory, Self-Monitoring, Task Monitoring


Preparing students with ASD for a new experience can be a struggle and present unfamiliar territory that could easily throw off their ability to self-monitor and focus. A specific strategy for preparing students for a new situation is called a Lead Up Plan. This plan is usually set about a week before a new experience occurs for students. By having a daily reminder, discussion, opportunity for questions, visuals on the board, and connections to a prior lesson, experience, or story can significantly make students with Autism feel at ease and ready for this change. Taking a couple minutes at the beginning, middle, and end of class to remind students and implement one of the strategies in that last sentence, can go along way in transitioning effectively. This strategy will allow students to practice mindfulness with the HOM of: persisting, gathering data through all senses (auditory, visual, smell), applying past knowledge to new situations, and questioning and problem posing. In addition, they will physically act on the EF functions of: planning and organizing, working memory, and shifting thinking and behaviors.

Specific Learning Disabilities

According to Cooper-Kahn & Foster (2013), “A specific learning disability is defined as an unexpected inability to learn a particular academic skill or set of skills despite having the intelligence and the instruction to do so.”

EI Thoughts & Question:

Just like it was yesterday, I vividly remember my struggle with reading comprehension and conveying my ideas on paper. I was always able to do it but it took me so much longer than my peers. For example, if I was given a 10-page reading assignment and had to answer 10 questions in response to the reading, and most of my peers took thirty minutes to complete it, it would probably take me an hour. Why? Because reading was an area of struggle for me, I usually needed to read a page twice before I understood it. I worked with many students who struggle in reading and comprehension. Making sure to give them time to complete readings with accuracy, lessening impulsivity, and giving opportunity for clarification I believe is critical toward their success. A question to assist students with a learning disability is:

How can I plan and organize a class in order for students with a learning disability to be successful?

Recommended Habits of Mind and Executive Functioning Skills:

HOM: Thinking Flexibly, Taking Responsible Risks, Striving for Accuracy, Creating, Imagining, and Innovative, Thinking Interdependently

EF: Initiation, Planning and Organizing, Task Monitoring


Writing tends to be an area that many students with a learning disability struggle with throughout their education. One effective strategy for getting in writing mode is called Match a Habit. The idea is simple. Before beginning a writing activity, essay, or journal for the class, have students select a Habit of Mind they feel connects best to their writing performance. Once they have a HOM to use they will take a quick note on how they will be using the HOM to enhance their writing for the day. When the writing time is completed students will reflect on their use with the HOM. For example, students are giving 30 minutes to prepare an outline for their narrative essay. A student might select the HOM Creating, Imagining, and Innovative and write about how they are going to be creative and unique in the way they set up their outline….with the idea of making it different than their average peer. Once the time is up students will go back and reflect on their use of the habit. This strategy will allow students to practice mindfulness with the HOM of: any Habit of Mind they chose. In addition, they will physically act on the EF functions of: planning and organizing, task monitoring, and initiation.

Depression, Anxiety, & Psychiatric

The list of symptoms associated with depression, anxiety, and psychiatric disorders can have adverse effects on executive skills. A few recognizable symptoms may be mood changes, careless errors, slower processing, and deceased working memory.

EI Thoughts and Question:

Anxiety…until this day it is something I still deal with on a daily basis. When I get blindsided with tasks or a lot information at once I tend to lose focus and my heart races. Although, at this age I know what I need to do in order to alleviate my anxiety. As a teacher I often see anxiety within my students daily and I can completely understand how they feel. For example, I know when I was in high school I use to get extremely anxious when in reading circle discussion groups. It wasn’t that I did not know the information within the novel, it was that it took me a long time to process what I was going to say in response to a question. Many of my peers answered right away and left me in the dark with nothing to say due to my inability to answer quickly. It made me lose confidence and focus due to worrying about not being able to answer as fast as my peers. Now, when I work with students in reading groups, I make sure to give students five seconds of processing/wait time to gather thoughts, ideas, responses, and questions. I notice a difference with student comprehension, participation, and level of comfort. No matter what I do in class I always ask this question in reference to anxiety/depression/psychiatric disorders:

How can I give students with anxiety, depression, or a psychiatric disorder opportunities to engage, gather information, monitor and shift their thinking and behaviors, and control their impulsivity in order to learn as their peers do?

Recommended Habits of Mind and Executive Functioning Skills:

HOM: Striving for Accuracy, Thinking Interdependently, Thinking and Communicating with Clarity and Precision

EF: Planning and Organizing, Working Memory, Shifting Thinking and Behaviors, Emotional Control


Let’s go back to the focus of classroom discussions. This strategy is called Green-Red Prompting. What this strategy does is allow students to who suffer from anxiety, or other disorders that may impede their learning, to use a green and red card as a comfort level communicator. For example, during a class discussion and questioning activity on a topic, students will simply put the card on red (if they are not comfortable being called on) or green (if they are comfortable with answering or participating in the discussion). For many students this allows the ability to listen, comprehend material, and get involved when ready…while maintaining a level of comfort and learning that is effective for them. This strategy will allow students to practice mindfulness with the HOM of: managing impulsivity, striving for accuracy, metacognition, thinking interdependently, and listening with understanding and empathy. In addition, they will physically act on the EF functions of: working memory, shifting thinking and behaviors, emotional control.

Acute and Chronic Stress

Even the best among us have times when we are overloaded and downright worn out. Emerging evidence and studies imply that a person’s ability to exert effortful energy is finite; and that cognitive and behavioral control draw on the same resources. So, when someone is trying to push through a task while maintaining an unfavorable mood, feeling mentally “drained,” and losing energy, it is a sign that their executive functioning is suffering. The stress wins.

“Both emotional and physical stress can deplete our resources, and then we are subject to poor decision making, weak emotional control, inefficient working memory, and disorganized thinking.”

Cooper-Kahn & Foster (2013)

EI Thoughts and Question:

The stress I dealt with in my high school years was brought upon myself. I constantly pushed off my assignments and let them pile up, and eventually I was in a position where I had so much to do in such little time. It caused nothing but stress for me and in the end I learned nothing…except for the horrible feeling of being stressed out. I look back and realize that if I had taken the opportunity to plan ahead, follow a schedule, remain focused on tasks, and monitor myself, things could have been different. Now, it has taught me that I must provide these supports for my students. This is important for students I work with that have acute and chronic stress in school and their lives. I must make sure that the stress does not impede their learning, and most importantly, their health. Here is a question I always ask when working with students who are stressed:

How do I maintain a healthy level of classroom culture, assignments, activities, and learning that does not bring on stressful episodes for my students?

Recommended Habits of Mind and Executive Functioning Skills:

HOM: Metacognition, Striving for Accuracy, Managing Impulsivity, Applying Past Knowledge to New Situations

EF: Planning and Organizing, Self-Monitoring, Task Monitoring, Shifting Thinking and Behaviors


Getting mentally and physically prepared for class is important for both teachers and students. One effective strategy is the EF Daily Agenda. At the beginning of each class the teacher will make sure to provide a visual of the daily agenda. Not only will this show the activities and assignments, it will clearly include the HOM and EF skills involved for the day. This agenda will be a piece that can mentally and physically prepare students for the day. Students will have an opportunity to ask questions, get organized, plan their thinking, and have dialogue about what HOM will be important to use for the activities ahead. A great way to alleviate stress and mentally prep for the class. This strategy will allow students to practice mindfulness with the HOM of: managing impulsivity, metacognition, thinking interdependently, and applying past knowledge to new situations. In addition, they will physically act on the EF functions of: planning and organizing, self-monitoring, task monitoring, shifting thinking and behaviors.


Demystifying the Student Mind

Beginning the school year by getting to know your students is the most critical step to building a rapport and understanding who they are as individuals. Sometimes we don’t consider the bigger picture—our students lives outside of school, hence we often make judgments and jump to conclusions. When we attempt to demystify students struggles, minds, emotions, and thinking, we open a gateway to deeper perspective, which leads to a more effective approach to understanding individual learning patterns and strategies.

Below are three tips/strategies for developing insight into students while practicing mindfulness to emotional intelligence.

  1. First and foremost, gain insight into students’ ability to display effective skills and purposeful behaviors for learning within a classroom. For example, you notice the first couple weeks of school some characteristics of a few students, such as inattentive behaviors, impulsiveness, lack of focus, and difficulty transitioning from one activity to another. This lends valuable insight into “what” the issues are, ”who” they are,  and finally, figuring out “how” to best make an impact for change using the EF skills and HOM.
  2. Once upon a time we were all students. And, sometimes if we transform our thinking to a kid, and go back to our days in the classroom, reflecting on what worked for us, they can be some of the best strategies we infuse. What EF skills worked for you? What HOM were effective for you?
  3. Take it all in! Know your emotional intelligence, infuse Habits of Mind where you see fit, and connect Executive Functioning in a way that best serves your students.

As the quote in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird goes, “You can never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view….until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Point made—gain perspective both “inside and out!”


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

See all posts from Dan Vollrath.


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