Understanding: Executive Functioning

One of the most common areas for growth on student Individual Education Plans (IEPs) is executive functioning. While many education workers have seen that term, there is often confusion about what it means, the impact is has on student success, and how to accommodate it. By understanding what the experts think, and understanding why specific accommodations are required, students will be better prepared to demonstrate their full levels of success.

From the Experts

Some people describe executive function as “the management system of the brain.” That’s because the skills involved let us set goals, plan, and get things done. When people struggle with executive function, it impacts them at home, in school, and in life.

There are three main areas of executive function. They are:
     1. Working memory
     2. Cognitive flexibility (also called flexible thinking)
     3. Inhibitory control (which includes self-control)


Executive function is responsible for many skills, including:

     • Paying attention
     • Organizing, planning, and prioritizing
     • Starting tasks and staying focused on them to completion
     • Understanding different points of view
     • Regulating emotions
     • Self-monitoring (keeping track of what you’re doing)

Understood.org: https://www.understood.org/articles/en/what-is-executive-function

Photo by Samantha Gades on Unsplash

What is Executive Functioning?

If a student has executive functioning on their IEP, it likely means that they have a difficult time starting their work, or continuing to work without prompts.  It may also mean that they have difficulty knowing how to approach a multi-part or multi-stage task.

A numerical step-by-step list of what needs to be done, with an accompanying graphic organizer can help students stay on task, while providing a page that allows teachers to see their progress at a glance.

Limited Demonstrations doesn’t mean Limited Abilities

Students who have limited evidence of learning do not lack the skills to demonstrate their learning.  This is why grades are based on their most consistent and recent demonstrations of learning, rather than attributing a percentile to each assignment.

For example, a student who missed a unit test, or final-unit-assignment should not lose 15% of their final grade because the task was weighted as 15% of their grade.  Instead, their other demonstrations of learning should be considered when determining the way those targeted overall expectations relate to their grade.

The Need for Accommodations

Because executive functioning is integral to so many abilities required in a traditional classroom setting, it is imperative that education workers are constantly accommodating for the needs of their students by creating graphic organizers, chunked assignments, organized lists, and providing prompts to return students to the task at hand. 

Including visual planners and calendars also helps accommodate the needs of our learners.

Looking at Other Areas for Growth



Written by…

Michael Barltrop has been teaching since 2006, integrating comics, video games, and TTRPGs into his classroom. He has been the head of English, Literacy, Special Education, and Assessment & Evaluation and Universal Design. Feel free to reach out through Twitter @MrBarltrop!

Feel free to support the website hosting by buying him a coffee or sharing this post on facebook, twitter, or whatever social media is trending these days.

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