A Teacher’s Guide to Executive Functions in the Classroom

How do executive functions impact academic performance?

It is evident that executive functioning skills are crucial to classroom success. Simple executive skills such as organization and planning help students to be able to write down their homework, remember to do it, and then return to class the following day. Executive functions are also directly related to the development of many academic skills. For example, the  working memory skills used when a child is able to keep different sounds of a word in mind while sounding it out, are a necessary component for word decoding. Working memory skills are also required for reading comprehension, when a child needs to hold in mind what has happened in the previous sentence and put it together with new sentence is to form a cohesive understanding of text.

Executive functions are also important for learning 21st-century skills that involve thinking and working creatively and collaboratively. Skills such as planning, organization, social awareness, metacognition, and flexibility are core components of 21st-century skills.

There have been many compelling studies that describe how teaching executive functioning skills to preschool and elementary school students is more important to long-term academic success than teaching specific academic skills. Longitudinal studies that examine the impact of teaching preschool and elementary school students self management and planning skills indicate that the students do far better than their peers throughout the academic careers and then those who are not taught these skills.

Here are a few examples of how executive functions impact specific academic skills:


Organization impacts the content of writing. Putting ideas in a logical order, transitioning between ideas and paragraphs, figuring out which content is most important and what should be included where.

Working Memory helps to keep multiple ideas in mind at once, remember organizational rules of writing paragraphs/papers with intro, supportive paragraphs, conclusion. Keeping the larger picture in mind while trying to work through every idea and supporting detail, thinking about the sentence that was just written while writing the next sentence in order to ensure clarity and flow.

Self-Awareness help to recognize how you are thinking about the organization of the content, recognizing when something you wrote sounds awkward or needs to be re-worded, self-analysis/evaluation/correcting


Planning occurs when thinking ahead about what kind of problem this is, and what options you have for solving it, planning the steps you will use to solve the problem)

Working Memory is used while keeping different steps to solving a problem in mind, and recalling which formulas to use to solve which problems.

To learn more about how executive functioning skills are used across many other academic subjects check out our Educator Resource Guide.


Featured image: Flickr user Daniel X. O’Neil

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