Executive Functions in the Classroom

Jillian Enright

How teachers and school staff can support students with executive functioning difficulties

Neurocomplexities

In my personal and professional experience, when we inform a teacher that a student in their class has ADHD, a learning disability — or any divergent neurotype — they often nod as though they understand and don’t ask specific questions about that student.

Obviously this is not always the case, but it’s happened more often than not. It seems many adults form a quick picture in their head based on stereotypes, a bit of knowledge and previous experience, then move on.

ADHD isn’t just difficulty sitting still. Dyslexia isn’t just reversing numbers or letters. Autism isn’t just flapping and rocking. I could go on (you know I can, and I will).

Whenever any diagnosis or neurocomplexity is identified, that gives us only a very small picture of what to expect. Every single neurodivergent person experiences our traits differently and our complex neurology impacts our lives in different ways.

If you’re told a student has ADHD, you still know nothing about that student. Are they hyperactive? Inattentive? Do they struggle with impulsivity? Emotional regulation? Organization? Do they prefer orange or yellow? Sweet or salty?

You won’t know until you ask.

Please ask.

Executive functions

Neurodivergent folks struggle with executive functions (EF). There are roughly five categories of EFs, and each person will struggle in different areas. I’ve covered EFs before, but I promise this is all new information.

In this article, I will provide concrete examples of how each EF might look inside a classroom, as well as child-centred strategies for supporting students in these areas.

The five executive functioning categories are as follows:

  1. Cognitive flexibility
  2. Organization
  3. Working memory
  4. Inhibition
  5. Emotion regulation

Cognitive rigidity

Cognitive flexibility — the opposite of rigidity — describes one’s ability to adapt to change. Children with executive functioning difficulties often struggle with this.

What this looks like in the classroom:

  • Inflexible cognitive style, difficulty adjusting and adapting to change
  • Difficulty with transitions, especially when switching from a preferred activity to a less-favoured activity
  • Becomes anxious or upset with unexpected changes in routine
  • Black-and-white thinking
  • Tries to be the teacher/adult and “police” the behaviour of others

Please note, this is not a student deliberately trying to be “bossy”, although it may look that way. Children who are anxious often feel uncomfortable when they feel the rules are not applied and followed equally.

Strategies to help

  • Whenever possible, provide advance warning before changes and transitions.
  • Don’t dismiss, minimize, or invalidate someone’s experience just because you don’t understand it.
  • Respond with empathy and patience when a change in routine is upsetting.
  • Be as fair and consistent as possible to help keep things predictable.

Organization

Students with executive functioning difficulties may struggle with organizing tasks and materials, estimating time, prioritizing tasks, and getting started on work-like tasks.

What this looks like in the classroom:

  • Messy binders with pages sticking out
  • Often missing pages needed, can’t find assignments
  • Messy locker and desk
  • Difficulties with planning
  • Forgets to put things back where they belong, then can’t find them later
  • Easily loses track of time
  • Has difficulty estimating how long something will take to complete

Strategies to help

  • Use visual reminders and visual schedules to help with structure and predictability.
  • Provide a visual reference (such as a photo) as a reminder of what something can or will look like when it’s organized and tidy.
  • Schedule time in for organizing and tidying. Keeping on top of it is the best way because messes can become overwhelming quickly.
  • Use timers and clocks to help keep track of passing time, teach students how to tell time, and teach time-management strategies.
  • Break large tasks into smaller, more manageable steps.

Working memory

Working memory allows us to hold information in mind while mentally working with it. Children who struggle with short-term memory may seem to lack comprehension, but it is really more a matter of difficulty showing what they know.

What this looks like in the classroom:

  • Demonstrates comprehension in conversations or hands-on projects, but does poorly on written tests requiring memorization
  • Remembers complex concepts and understands big-picture ideas, but has difficulty remembering minute details or specific bits of information
  • Often makes mistakes when copying notes off the board
  • Gets side-tracked easily when following multi-step directions, often forgets what the next step was and has to ask for instructions to be repeated

Strategies to help

  • Connect new information to relevant, relatable subject matter using meaningful, real-life examples
  • Provide notes, visual aids, and visual reminders
  • Provide learning aids for various learning styles
  • Test for understanding, not rote memorization
  • Break complex instructions into smaller, more manageable steps

Impulsivity

Impulsivity, or disinhibition, can be one of the more difficult executive functioning challenges to accommodate in a classroom environment. It’s very important to remember that impulsivity is not a choice the student is making, their impulsive behaviour results from their neurological differences.

What this looks like in the classroom:

  • Shouting out, talking out of turn, interrupting others
  • Difficulty waiting their turn
  • Impatient, difficulty waiting in line — dislikes waiting in general
  • May make jokes at inappropriate times, especially if they get a laugh from their classmates
  • May be more likely to resort to physical methods of resolving disputes, or struggle with emotional impulsivity
  • Acts without thinking, then can’t explain the reasoning for their behaviour (because there was none — hence the term impulsivity)

Impulsive behaviour is defined as:

“behaviour characterized by little or no forethought, reflection, or consideration of the consequences of an action, particularly one that involves taking risks.” — American Psychological Association

Impulsivity is a struggle with self-control. It stems from complex neurological differences in development, particularly in the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC), the area of the brain responsible for self-management.

Impulse control is not simply about “mind over matter”, nor having better self-discipline, it’s a matter of developmental maturity. There are well-documented neurological differences in the brains of neurodiverse children.

Strategies to help

  • Patience. Understand this child is struggling with neurodevelopment that lags behind that of their peers.
  • This child already recognizes they are different and aren’t able to regulate themselves as well as their peers, so chastising them won’t help — they already feel badly about this.
  • Create an atmosphere of safety and acceptance in your classroom. Children learn and grow better when they feel cared for and liked. Their skills will improve when they feel supported enough to practice them.
“Creating an environment where the child’s needs are felt and appropriately responded to provides the necessary trust that motivates the child.” — Josette Luvmour

Role model

If you just caught yourself snapping at your student, process what happened out loud: “oh dear, that came out a little harsher than I meant it, I’m sorry. I am feeling a little frustrated, I should get a drink of water and take a breath before continuing.”

Not only have you just shown your students how to self-regulate, you’ve also role-modelled accepting responsibility for one’s behaviour, making amends, and using a strategy for addressing the challenge.

You’ve also shown the students that your frustration was not their fault — we are responsible for our emotional reactions, not them — so they’re less likely to take it personally.

Emotion regulation

Emotion regulation encompasses the following abilities:

  • Inhibiting inappropriate behaviour affiliated with strong emotion
  • Self-soothing physiological arousal induced by strong affect
  • Refocusing attention
  • Organizing for coordinated action and service for an external goal

Many children with executive functioning difficulties will struggle with emotional self-regulation.

What this looks like in the classroom:

  • Big and intense feelings
  • Seems to “overreact” to things
  • May seem to go from calm to explosive very quickly
  • Tends to lack self-awareness about what caused their dysregulation, and with the physical sensations in their body associated with their emotions.
  • May become overwhelmed easily
  • Seems to take a long time to calm down after becoming upset

Strategies to help:

  • Build connections with your students, get to know them. This will help each student feel safer in the classroom and will also help you better identify when they are beginning to become dysregulated.
  • Building relationships will allow you to know what works best for each student, including what helps them calm down when they’re upset.
  • Provide a quiet, private area of your classroom where students can go to decompress if they begin to feel overwhelmed, frustrated, or in need of a quiet moment to self-regulate.

Co-regulation

  • Co-regulation happens when we remain calm, validate the child’s experiences and feelings, and offer a comforting presence.
  • When we co-regulate with students, we show them we will keep them safe and continue to care for and support them, even when their feelings are big and intense.

Neurology is not a choice

None of these difficulties are simply “mind over matter”, nor having better self-discipline, they’re all a matter of developmental maturity. None of us can just “try harder” to not have ADHD or a learning disability; we can’t will away our symptoms or neurological differences through increased effort.

We cannot overcome our symptoms or neurological differences through increased effort.

It can be incredibly trying, frustrating, even exhausting to manage challenging behaviours, especially when you have a classroom full of students you’re trying to teach.

When you feel yourself losing patience with a student, remember their difficulties are a matter of skill, not will. If you take the time to connect, guide, and role-model you will save yourself and your students unnecessary frustration.

Rather than criticizing and chastising, you’ll be equipping them with the tools needed to handle the situation more effectively the next time. More importantly, you’ll prove to them they’re not “bad” kids, they just need to develop strategies for managing their struggles.

© Jillian Enright, Neurodiversity MB

Related Stories

Executive Functions for Parents And Kids

How Executive Dysfunction Impacts Daily Life

Punishments Don’t Teach Skills

Exploring Emotional Co-Regulation

References

Diamond, A. (2013). Executive functions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64(1), 135–168. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-113011–143750

Hinshaw, S. P. (2003). Impulsivity, emotion regulation, and developmental psychopathology: Specificity versus generality of linkages. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1008(1), 149–159. https://doi.org/10.1196/annals.1301.016

Luvmour, J., & Luvmour, B. (2019). Relationship Based Education: Relationships and partnerships in educational environments.

Nigg, J. (2017). Getting ahead of ADHD: What next-generation science says about treatments that work — and how you can make them work for your child. The Guilford Press.

Comments / 0

Published by

Neurodivergent. 20+ years social work and psychology experience. I write about mental health, neurodiversity, advocacy, education, and parenting. Founder of Neurodiversity MB. CYW, BA Psychology.

N/A
2753 followers

More from Jillian Enright

Comments / 0