Nina's Notes

for Effective Teaching and Meaningful Learning

Executive Function


Executive function (EF) is an important part of our every day life experiences. It has often been referred to the idea of having a command and control - center in our brain. Executive function is not easily measurable because it overlaps with many tasks we have in our daily lives. These top level brain functions activate, organize, integrate and manage other functions in our brain. Independent learners have strong executive function skills (see references below). Neuropsychologists have been studying executive function for more than a decade, and I got my first course about it back in 2003, in Niilo Maki Institute, Finland.

Life-long learning

Executive functions are very visible in the cognitive growth of children, and are thus used as developmental benchmarks, for example when kids learn to follow two-step directions. EF keeps on developing and growing into adulthood, so being aware of this developmental process during the school years yields to better outcomes and work-life functionality after graduation. In your classroom the good EF skill is visible in students' ability to work independently, i.e. create an action plan and stick to it. That may sound like a very simple skill, but in reality it is quite wide set of skills that all contribute to success. Here is a short list of EF outcomes:

   How it looks like  It is the ability to
 Impulse control
 waiting for turn/permission
stop and think before acting, engage in group dynamics
 Self-monitoring   following instructions/plan
adjust effort and behaviour according to expectations/feedback
 Flexibility  adapting well to new situations evaluate ideas and reflect on own work and revise when needed
 Working memory
 including past knowledge access necessary information from short term memory
 independent learning/working plan steps to reach a goal and choose your focus
 Task initiation
 being aware of time start a task without  having a deadline or getting overwhelmed
 taking care of belongings/tasks create systems to keep track on more than one thing at once
 Emotional control
 accepting feedback, playing fair  manage and regulate feelings/behaviour

Helping your students excel these functions doesn't mean adding a new subject to curriculum. Being intentional and student centered in your teaching and providing your students with plenty of chances to practice EF helps them to keep on growing with their skills. Too much structured instruction makes it hard for students to get experience in planning their actions and work, so be sure to have them practice all the steps above in the daily schoolwork. Graphic organizers are invaluable help here! Also point out their strengths in the area of EF, because the very same skill set is necessary in successfully understanding cause and effect.


One quite common problem among students is the inability to start working on their own. It can reflect to ineffective working memory, or even to the fact that there has always been someone around to remind what should be done, but teaching the planning and executing process helps also these students to be successful in their learning. By providing choices in the everyday classroom work we can help students practice their EF skills. Choosing is a a complex process and we seldom think it should be practiced, but the reality is that all the executive functions take part in choosing. 

How can I help you embed EF and choosing into your everyday classroom work? Please call/email me!



St Clair-Thompson, H. L., & Gathercole, S. E. (2006). Executive functions and achievements in school: Shifting, updating, inhibition, and working memory. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology59(4), 745-759. 

Nayfeld, I., Fuccillo, J., & Greenfield, D. B. (2013). Executive functions in early learning: Extending the relationship between executive functions and school readiness to science. Learning and Individual Differences.

More about Executive Functions, cognition and other 3Cs in the book: Choosing How to Teach and Teaching How to Choose