What are Executive Functioning Skills?
what are executive functioning skills?

What are Executive Functioning Skills?

Executive functioning skills are the cognitive processes for goal-directed behavior.  To put it simply, they are basically the skills needed to perform any task.  There are 11 different executive functioning skills and they all work together.  In other words, if your student has a weakness in one skill, it can really impact the overall ability to perform any task. 

I wanted to write a blog post that goes over these 11 executive functioning skills so that you can understand what you need to teach to bridge the gaps.

  1. Response inhibition 
  2. Working memory 
  3. Emotional control 
  4. Sustained attention
  5. Task initiation 
  6. Planning and prioritizations 
  7. Organization
  8. Time management 
  9. Persistence
  10. Flexibility 
  11. Metacognition 


I want to dive into detail and kind of explain what that may look like in your self-contained classrooms. 


If you are struggling with student behavior, you can go to this blog post and read all about 8 Common Challenging Behaviors with Students with Autism

These executive functioning skills can be learned and strengthened.  We can work on and teach these skills in the classroom.  We often will see lots of challenges when there are deficits in these skills because they all work together.  A student may struggle with keeping and maintaining friendships, they might suffer in academic and social skills, and they might find paying attention really hard.  But the more we explicitly teach these skills, the more independent they become, the more flexible they are, and then they can start self-regulating themselves. 

Okay, let's dive in!

Response Inhibition

This skill is about thinking before we act.  This is all about resisting the urge to do something.  A lot of my students don't have great impulse control.  For example, it's Halloween, and I am passing out candy.  Johnny might eat his entire bag of candy by the end of the day and not think about his actions which may lead to a stomach ache later in the day. 

Working Memory

This is the ability to retain information while doing something else.  For example, if Johnny is walking down the hallway, he is not able to scroll through social media on his phone at the same time.  Doing two things at once is having a bad working memory. 

Emotional Control

I like to think of the character, Anger, from the Disney movie, Inside Out.  In the movie, Anger is not able to control his feelings and often has emotional outbursts.  So in a classroom example, Johnny was given back his social studies report and got a bad grade.  Johnny then starts throwing classroom furniture around and can't get past it.  This is bad emotional control.  

Sustained Attention

This is the ability to pay attention to a task or activity while there are a lot of distractions going on.  For example, Johnny is working in the back of the room on independent work systems but there is a group in the front of the room working on a fun game and being very loud about it.  If Johnny has deficits in sustained attention, he will be very distracted by that group in the front of the room. 

Task Initiation

This is the ability to efficiently begin tasks.  For example, the teacher just passes out the math test and everyone gets right to work.  However, Johnny looks around at the walls and doesn't get right to work.  This would be a deficit in task initiation. 

Planning and Prioritizing

This is basically a skill that allows you to create a roadmap to a goal you want to get to.   Or even better,  creating a checklist on how to complete a task.  For many students, this skill is very difficult because it is multi-step.  The student has to identify the end goal and come up with a way to break down those steps to complete the task. 


This is another skill that is very difficult for special education students.  Oorganization is the ability to create and maintain systems to keep track of information and materials.  For example, in order to do the math homework, you need to bring the math book home, to begin with. 

Time Management

This is the ability to estimate how much time you have and allocate that time and estimate how much time specific activities are going to take.  You also have to have the ability to count backward and the ability to stay on task. For example, if Johnny has 60 minutes to put together a project on the Iroquois tribe in social studies, Johnny has to estimate how long each part of that project will take.


This skill is following through on completing the task.  We want our students to be able to complete tasks all the way through.  You don't want to give johnny the 30-question math test and he only gets through 20 questions. 


This is the ability to revise a plan to change in different conditions.  For example, the picnic was scheduled for Friday, but there is rain in the forecast and the picnic was canceled.  Now Johnny is crying on the floor.  This is poor flexibility. 


This is probably the hardest of all of the executive functioning skills.  Metacognition is when you are self-monitoring and self-evaluating.  When I sleep in too late, I am often very cranky and tend to forget things.  I like to set my alarm in the mornings so that I am not running late.  This would be great metacognition. 

executive functioning skills infographic

What can I do to help?

Here are some strategies for each executive functioning skill to help in the special education classroom. 

  1. Response inhibition: try using visuals on the desk as a reminder to think first.
  2. Working memory: use sticky notes, or a to-do list and have students write down things so they don't forget.
  3. Emotional control: model appropriate behavior, talk about scenarios, watch videos on emotion regulation
  4. Sustained attention: listen to music, use headphones, choose a different location, make the task more interesting
  5. Task initiation: create a schedule, use a timer, estimate how long the task last, and find the true time.
  6. Planning and prioritizations: use a planner or an agenda, make a to-do list, create charts and graphs, and create the visual schedule together.
  7. Organization: visual schedule, timer, color-coded folders, organized binder, and social stories to show what organization looks like.
  8. Time management: using a time timer, using a watch, adding reminders to an iPhone or Alexa, using a stopwatch.  Estimate how long the task will take.
  9. Persistence: set goals, create reminders, and find great incentives for students to earn when they achieve the goal.
  10. Flexibility: practice sudden changes in the schedule, and move the student's seat from time to time. Play board games that rely on chance and learn to be flexible. 
  11. Metacognition: Point out to kids what they think they are thinking.  Use visuals to think about how they think.


Executive functioning skills are very tricky to teach and should be taught throughout the day, in all of the lessons.  There are many different times teachable moments will arise for you to teach about these skills. 

11 executive functioning skills

I am a High School, self-contained Autism teacher from Central New York, who is passionate about individualizing student learning. I am a mommy of three, lover of all things Disney, married to my best friend and addicted to chocolate!! I hope that you find great ideas and inspiration here, so welcome!!

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