Executive Functioning in the Classroom

Interventions for Teachers and School Counselors

by Samantha R. Jordan, Psy.D.

  • Executive functions system lies in the prefrontal cortex of the brain--this area is not fully developed to its adult potential until approximately 25 years old

-  Definition:  “executive functions refer to those abilities that allow one to carry out social and instrumental activities successfully, such as engaging with others effectively, planning activities, solving problems, and interacting with the environment to get needs met” (Stern & Prochaska, 1996, p. 243).

  • There are four major components of executive functioning:  volition, planning/organization, purposive action, effective performance



What it Involves

When there are problems...

Teacher/Counselor Interventions


Awareness of wants/needs, motivation

Poor self-awareness, indifference/apathy, unmotivated to complete work, needs highly structured environment, requires frequent prompts/redirection

Call out students’ names randomly to increase active involvement, teach self-monitoring with verbal and written cues, place written reminders on student’s desk and provide cues periodically for them to read them, provide high-interest activities whenever possible to improve motivation and follow-through


Goal-oriented thinking/behavior, organized approach, flexible thinking, awareness of socially appropriate actions, intact abstract reasoning

Disorganized thinking/behavior, inflexible thinking, socially inappropriate behaviors, impulsive, poor abstract reasoning 

Provide clear, simple, concise directions; give directions orally and in writing; role-play complex activities or social situations so student can practice correct actions; develop organizational behavior patterns and expectations (classroom clean-up time, designated spaces for materials); assign the students different jobs for classroom organization/clean-up so mastery can occur; collaborate with parents so organization strategies can be implemented at home


Purposive Action

Takes initiative, adapts to novel situations/tasks, can mentally process multiple simultaneous activities, completes work, self-regulation of emotions

Trouble starting and completing tasks, gives up easily especially on novel tasks, easily distracted, poor processing of multiple simultaneous activities, impatience, frequent terminations of work, poor self-regulation of emotions/mood

Seat student where work can be easily monitored or cues can be given, seat near front of class/board to reduce distractions, teach student to break larger assignment into smaller parts, use privacy boards or study carrels to improve on-task behavior and reduce distraction, make it okay for students to voice their difficulty with concepts

Effective Performance

Recognizes errors and corrects them, can use effective problem-solving skills, exercises good judgment, has cognitive flexibility

Does not recognize errors/does not check over work, poor problem-solving skills, poor judgment, inflexible thinking/may perseverate in performing incorrect action

Provide verbal and written reminders to check work before turning in, explain consequences for not taking time to check over work, teach problem-solving through role-plays and model multiple alternatives so student develops a knowledge base of correct actions, provide games and activities that demand the student think creatively, provide scenarios for the student to exercise good judgment and explain to the student why his/her response is satisfactory or needs improvement