We have all worked with students or coworkers who, “need to get their act together”. They are constantly late, rarely complete assignments on time and are generally forgetful. In a nutshell they appear utterly disorganized. It is common to believe that their disorganization is the result of a lack of self-discipline. The reality is that the ability to manage our lives and complete tasks requires the coordinated use of several executive functioning skills, located in what has been called the “air-traffic control center of the brain” (Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 2011). The three overarching components of Executive Functioning (EF) Skills are working memory, impulse control and mental flexibility. For more detailed information see: Building the Brain's "Air Traffic Control" System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function
The video below will provide a brief (5:36 min) overview of Executive Functioning skills.
Students living with Attention Deficit Disorders (ADD/ADHD) have been shown to have deficits in executive functioning skills. Students with learning disabilities and even physical disabilities may also have executive functioning deficits related to their disability. These functions are primarily directed by the prefrontal lobe of the brain. Lack of development, function or damage in this area of the brain can cause a variety issues in the learning environment including difficulties with organization and task completion. The good news is, EF skills can be developed throughout life (Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 2011).
Three key areas discussed here are: (a) regulating attention (b) planning, and (c) time management. It is helpful to understand how these issues manifest themselves in the learning environment and how we can help students manage and build their skills.
When most people think about problems with attention they think about a short attention span, but attention is a cycle.
We must be able to direct our attention to an activity – sustain our attention for an appropriate amount of time - and then direct attention away from an activity in order to move on to another activity.
The ability to shift attention at the appropriate time is often challenging for students with executive functioning deficits. They may have trouble at any and all stages.
Directing attention to an activity – This student may have difficulty getting started on a task and may find ways to procrastinate.
Sustaining attention on an activity - This student may get started on an activity and then move to something else.
Directing attention away from an activity – This student may hyper focus on a task and have difficulty moving to another activity and often loses track of time.
Strategies to help regulate attention:
Use a Visual Timer to:
Help students get started – Timers can turn an undesirable task into a game, for example, challenge students to see how many sentences they can write in 15 min.
Relieve anxiety especially for undesirable tasks - You can do almost anything for 15 minutes, right?
Help students stay on track - Timers can help students who tend to get absorbed in an activity, hyperfocus - these students may be perfectionists the timer will give them an excuse not to be perfect. Tell your students “you have 15 minutes to do this so I do not expect it to be perfect. You can revise later.
The ability to regulate your attention is essential to completing tasks in a timely manner.
Using timers regularly will also help students build their awareness of time and ability to estimate how long it takes them to complete a task. This skill will help them with time management.
Practice Estimating Time
Ask students to estimate the amount of time they think it will take them to complete a task before they begin. Then mark down the actual beginning and ending time. Have them compare the actual time to the estimated time. This activity can be done using notebook paper or you can use an Excel spreadsheet that will calculate the amount of time. An image is shown below and a sample working spreadsheet is attached. Being able to estimate the amount of time something will take is essential to planning our time and completing assignments on time.
Note: To view any of the graphics in this blog in a larger size, click on the graphics in the photo gallery at the end of the blog.
For many people with EF deficits, planning can be overwhelming. To effectively plan a project students need to: Understand what the project entails – Ask students to repeat what they are expected to do in order to catch any misunderstandings.
Break the task down into manageable tasks – Try using a graphic organizer to help students identify sub-tasks.
Estimate the time it takes to complete each task.
Gather knowledge and materials needed to complete each task.
Schedule time to complete each task.
Manage attention throughout the process.
That is a lot to expect when many if not all of these skills are weak.
Time management relies on the ability to estimate how long a task will take and fit it into the amount of time available. Sounds simple, right? But…
A poor working memory makes it difficult to remember the commitments you have – write everything down on a calendar.
Difficulty estimating the time it takes to complete tasks may cause students to believe they can complete a project in one evening, usually the night before it is done.
Difficulty managing attention can cause you to move from one task to another too quickly before completing a task or spend too much time, hyper focused on detail.
Strategies for Managing a Calendar
Teach students to categorize time, for example:
Appointments – Committed time (classes, sports activities, doctor visits, meal time)
Transitions - Prep time (travel to and from school, time between classes, breaks between activities).
Available time Blocks – Uncommitted time (flexible time that can be used to complete homework and other tasks including hobbies).
Use a worksheet to layout their time commitments for the week. Here is an example created in Microsoft Word.
Identify the typical beginning and end of the “working day” (Wake up at 6am – Bedtime at 10pm).
Enter all “Appointments”(in red above) into their calendar for a day or a week.
Enter any “Transitions” (in yellow above) - time to get ready for school, travel to school or afterschool activities, etc.
Enter “Available Time Blocks” - The remaining time is available for completing assigned tasks. – This is where students will need to fit in all of the tasks/assignments they need to complete.
A visual layout of the time available in a day or week can help students conceptualize how much time they have available. Color-coding the different categories of time provide cues to what is coming next and where they should fit in time to complete homework assignments.
Using electronic calendars like Microsoft Outlook will allow older students to sync calendars with their smart phones and allow for easy color coding.
Most electronic calendars allow you to set automatic reminders between appointments. Reminders can provide visual and or auditory alerts to help students to manage their attention by providing a transition time between activities. The image below demonstrates where reminder alarms and color coding categories can be found in Microsoft Outlook.
There are many strategies and materials created by teachers and specialists to develop Executive Functioning Skills. One example of a collection of materials for students of all ages in these skills is Planning, Time Management and Organization for Success: Quick and Easy Approaches to Mastering Executive Functioning Skills for Students.
Resources and References
Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2011). Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function: Working Paper No. 11. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu
National Center for Learning Disabilities (2013) Executive Function 101
Warren, Erica (2010) Planning, Time Management and Organization for Success: Quick and Easy Approaches to Mastering Executive Functioning Skills for Students.