Strengthening Executive Functioning

  Executive functions are the mental processes we use to plan, organize and carry out work activities and decisions. A student with executive function difficulties may be extremely intelligent, but face obstacles to channeling and expressing this intelligence into the focused, organized design that the exterior culture requires. The following are common executive functions, obstacles, and possible tools for strengthening these functions.

Strengthening Strategies
Application Example A Research Project


  • Difficulty sensing how to start
  • Impulsive or haphazard starting
  • Do task analysis first
  • List the steps in research process before doing any hands on work
Goal Setting
  • Difficulty conceptualizing outcome
  • Leaps into work without establishing goals
  • Defines goals vaguely
  • Plan “backwards” first by beginning with outcomes, then determining how to get there
  • Ensure goals are concrete and measurable
  • Decide what successful research will show
  • Write down or draw a few examples
  • Goes through steps with inefficient sequence
  • Skips key steps in process
  • Leaps ahead
  • Order steps in task analysis
  • Recognize additional steps may need to be added later
  • Visualize how the steps will follow in order
  • Arrange steps from task analysis accordingly
  • Be open to reordering and adding to the list
  • Difficulty measuring time needed to complete steps
  • Begins without planning out steps
  • Set a completion goal date/time
  • Assign times to steps in task analysis to design a work plan
  • Evaluate how realistic estimates are and make adjustments
  • Determine which aspects of a research project require more and less time and assign accordingly
  • Focuses on smaller or less important tasks to the exclusion of larger ones because they appear more accessible or personally preferable
  • Has difficulty letting go of or delaying lower priority tasks
  • Wants to get it all done now
  • Include prioritizing as part of original task analysis
  • Remind self how plan includes a place for each step to be covered
  • Determine which parts of research project are critical to complete first
  • Refer back to plan for grounding when stressed about the size or complexity of the project
  • Materials are disorganized
  • Prefers the “free flowing” creative approach that does not involve keeping everything in an assigned place.
  • Assign practical places to keep materials
  • Use a date book/planner
  • Set up a designated work space
  • Use the “free flow” approach during creative portions of the work, but organize materials before next session
  • Discard unneeded material
  • Maintain written plan in a precise, accessible location with other materials for project
  • Set up research folder, binder or note cards
  • Keep all materials for project at a work desk
  • Spread out materials as desired during work times, but clean up afterward, throw out extraneous papers, return everything to designated work space
  • Distracted by competing stimulation
  • Follows impulse toward preferred interests outside of work
  • Switches between steps or portions of work
  • Hyperfocuses on particular tasks and without connection to other parts of project
  • Find a work place that minimizes distractions and temptations
  • Determine work habits and rituals that allow efficient and comfortable working
  • Make an agreement with self to pursue personal interests as a future designated time.
  • Take short timed breaks to reward self
  • Consult work plan to remind self what is needed to stay on task
  • Locate a comfortable, private research room in the library
  • Check e-mail, make a phone call or play a computer game after one hour of work
  • Keep work plan visible and consult
  • Does not maintain focus on extended task for duration
  • Has difficulty sustaining motivation and concentration when difficulties arise
  • Commit to working for a set period of time longer than usual then take a break to build stamina.
  • Use a brief period of positive self-talk to restore self
  • On an extensive research project, divide the day’s work into separate 45 minute intervals with 10 minute breaks
  • When progress feels limited and desire arises to give up, tell self this is a natural phase of the work. Also name one or two concrete accomplishments to remind self of progress
  • Rushes or lags in work pace
  • Does not accurately predict or measure progress over time and make adjustments
  • Loses poise when deadline approaches or stress builds
  • Warm up gradually, but steadily in beginning work
  • Monitor pace from beginning
  • Recall that work plan includes design for how to finish on time
  • Determine work habits and rituals that allow efficient and comfortable working
  • Finish work session gradually instead of working intensively and stopping abruptly
  • Compare how long is needed to research in particular sources with previous estimates and make adjustments accordingly
  • Start with a fun or easier source to get into the work.
  • Finish with an interesting or less demanding source to finish up on a relaxed note
  • Gets overinvolved in a task and does not shift to new one
  • Wastes time or becomes stressed in the transition process
  • Build transitions into the work
  • Determine habits or processes that ease shifts between different types of tasks
  • After consulting one source, take a breather or check off the item to get a sense of completion before heading into the next one.


  • Does not evaluate own progress or observe own process.
  • Has difficulty stepping back and monitoring while working
  • Monitors self, but does not make strategic adjustments
  • Recognizes adjustments need to be made, but does not implement
  • List specific work techniques and work session goals to observe and evaluate
  • After a specified period of work note down degree of progress and evaluate which study or work techniques are going well
  • Make adjustments in work plan, use of work techniques, or pacing based on self-evaluation
  • Decide how many notes or sources to be taken in a work session and measure progress after one hour
  • Choose one or two work techniques, such as skimming process or bibliographical organizing system to evaluate while working
  • Difficulty deciding what constitutes completion
  • Delays finishing because ending and letting go involve stress
  • Ends before work is completed
  • Define what completed work will be like in task analysis and work plan
  • Recognize that ending can be stressful and include ritual or activity that gives a sense of completion
  • Determine in advance how many notes and sources completed research will have
  • Wrap up note cards with a rubber band or some kind of package and label as complete