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Reimaging Executive Functioning: Putting the Puzzle Pieces Together

Updated: 4 days ago

Executive Functioning, Self-Regulation, and Social-Emotional Skills

What do students need so they can effectively plan and complete work?

Executive functioning skills, a set of skills that work together to help students manage their thoughts and actions, provide the answer. Tasks such as reading directions, gathering materials, estimating the amount of time it will take, and then completing a task all involve executive functioning skills. These abilities come easily to students with strong executive functioning skills, but others need to learn and develop these skills before they can successfully access content and complete assignments.

A multitude of executive functioning programs exist to help students build these skills, and many come complete with checklists and calendars to help students break down their work so they can easily follow their plan. Yet, no matter how perfect the plan and materials are, many students never take advantage of these tools.

Why don’t students use the tools when they seem so clear, so simple and so helpful?

Executive functioning abilities do not operate independently of other skills. Self-regulation is an important skill that enhances executive functioning skills. These two skills work closely together and have several overlapping components. Executive functioning refers to the ability to control our attention, remember instructions, manage emotional reactions and behaviors, and organize our thinking. Self-regulation involves setting goals and strategies and metacognitively monitoring cognitive processing during a task. Self-regulated learning (SRL) occurs when those goals involve learning (Schunk and DiBenedetto, 2020).

Some theories suggest that self-regulation requires executive functions (Barkley, 2011), while others consider self-regulation to be a part of executive functioning. What is clear is that productive, independent learners need both the executive functioning skills and self-regulation skills to plan, start and complete work. Basically, students with strong executive functioning skills become self-regulated learners.

Zimmerman (2000) formulated a three-phase cyclical model of self-regulation comprising forethought, performance, and self-reflection phases. The K&M Center has created a 4-step metacognitive strategy to help build executive functioning skills. Comparing these 2 systems side-by-side illustrations that self-regulated learners and students with strong executive functioning skills both follow a similar plan. Developing executive functioning skills in students who struggle to self-regulate will help them build their self-regulated skills.

Self-regulation includes student motivation which can influence behavioral outcomes. Learners who are motivated tend to exert more effort and persistence towards attaining their goals and are more likely to follow an executive functioning plan. As students notice that their effort results in achieving their goals, they build both self-confidence and motivation.

So, if self-regulated learning is a key component of independent learning and therefore completing essential work, what is self-regulated learning?

Self- Regulated Learning has three main components: cognition, metacognition, and motivation. There are three key types of strategies included in self-regulated learning (Muijs and Bokhove, 2020).

The graphic below provides an overview of the strategies self-regulated learners use.

Let’s take a closer look at these strategies. Building the executive functioning skills students lack will help them become self-regulated learners, so understanding the skills and strategies that underlie self-regulation can direct executive functioning intervention.

Cognitive Strategies

Cognition is thinking and acquiring knowledge. It is basically learning. Teaching cognitive strategies provides learners with several learning techniques from which to choose. Elaborating on topics, rehearsing facts, organizing ideas, using flashcards, implementing imagery, and studying with a partner are all examples of cognitive strategies.

Most great teachers and tutors teach cognitive strategies. These strategies include reviewing material, putting ideas in your own words, and expanding on them, using flashcards to organize ideas and practice recalling them, and creating mnemonics. In other words, these learning strategies enhance knowledge of the material.

Metacognitive Strategies

Metacognition is thinking about thinking. When students understand their current knowledge and learning skills, along with the demands of a task, they can pick the best cognitive strategy for the task. Students then continue to use their metacognitive skills to create a plan, monitor the effectiveness of the plan, and make changes and adjustments to the plan when needed. Metacognitive tools such as breaking down tasks, creating checklists, and setting timers help students follow their plan.

When students ask themselves questions while working, they use their metacognitive skills.

K&M Learning has developed four metacognitive prompts for students to help build their executive functioning skills:

  1. Stop and Imagine

  2. Think and Plan

  3. Do and Review

  4. Check and Turn in

Notice how each action prompt in the graphic below is followed by questions for students to ask themselves. Students can use the action prompts and self-questioning to help guide them through their work. The Executive Functioning Workbook includes many more strategies and tools students can use to build their metacognitive skills.

The first prompt reminds the student to STOP before jumping into DOING. Students who are impulsive and rush to finish their work often perform much better when they slow down, read the directions, break down the task into steps and then follow the steps. Many students who have trouble starting a task cannot easily see the first step, and so are often overwhelmed with the task. These students benefit greatly by taking the time to break down the task into steps they can easily understand and follow to complete the task.

So, cognitive strategies help students study and learn new material, and metacognitive strategies help students start, monitor, and complete their work. But what is going to inspire students to use the strategies? Here’s where motivation comes in.

Motivational Strategies

Motivation is why a person is willing to do something. It is the controlling force behind our actions. Motivation describes the process that initiates, guides, and maintains goal-oriented behaviors. Desire represents a key motivator. Motivational strategies include building self-awareness, developing self-control, and learning to delay gratification.

Motivation stems from self-awareness. Understanding what you want (desire) drives motivation. Students often face conflicting desires: do they want to text their friend back or get their work done? Texting a friend provides an immediate reward while finishing work provides a long-term reward. To choose the long-term reward rather than the immediate reward students must know what they want and have the desire to achieve that result. Setting a goal does just that: students define the outcome they want, which then increases their motivation.

Social-emotional activities can be used as experiences to build self-awareness, an important aspect of motivation. K&M Learning uses the projective process from the Violet Oaklander Model to help students build their self-awareness.

The Projective Process:

  • Step 1: Imagine it. Ask the student to imagine something they want.

  • Step 2: Make it. The student is encouraged to make it in some form that is accessible and fun for them: drawing, sand tray, clay, collage, etc.

  • Step 3: Be it. The student projects themselves onto what they made and become it. This projection is what allows them to experiment with something they feel or want in a novel and engaging way. Dr. Oaklander found this to be a powerful technique that is used by counselors and educators working with children around the globe. For example, a child who had difficulty reading at our Center may present with low motivation for reading and at the beginning of a remediation session, say, “I hate this, it’s too hard to do all these exercises every time!” We would then ask the student to draw a picture to depict how she felt as a reader. If she drew a picture of herself as a small child with an enormous book when asked to “be” the child in the drawing, she might answer, “I am a very small child that can barely hold onto this big book!”

  • Step 4: Own it. Follow up with the child and ask, “Does this fit for you? Do you feel like you’re very small and barely holding onto a big book?” The child then might answer, “Yes! I hate reading, it’s so hard for me – it always feels like I can’t read the way I am supposed to.”

  • Step 5: Extend it. The Specialist can now suggest, “OK, so if you could change this picture however you would like, how do you wish (desire) it could look?” The child might then respond and draw a more in perspective picture of a larger child, with an appropriately sized book. The Specialist can continue the process with a prompt, “Can you please be something in this picture?” The child is usually engaged at this point, and might exclaim, “I am this girl holding a book that I can hold AND I can read!” Which leads the Specialist to reply, “Wow – how can that happen in your life do you think?” The child might answer, “I’ll try a little harder when I’m here and maybe that will help.”

  • Summary: The student found her source of struggle and true pain regarding her self-image as a reader. She then was able to imagine (Step 1) how she could change the image and then had an internal image to change her self-awareness. Often students who struggle in school need to change their self-image, learn new skills, and experience success before their motivation for learning develops. Therefore, it is important to approach students with a multifaceted approach to intervention.


Self-Control Strategies

Self-Control Strategies also increase motivation, by helping students reduce distractions that interfere with their desired goal. Angela Duckworth, a leading researcher on grit and self-control, identifies four key strategies to help build self-control.

  1. Choose or change the situation. Some situations are better for studying while others are better for socializing. Selecting the best situation increases the student’s attention and motivation to stay on task. If a student starts to study somewhere they thought they could focus, and then people start interrupting, teach the student to get up and find a new place.

  2. Select what to pay attention to within the situation. For example, if the phone is distracting it may be helpful to remove the phone. In other words, modify the situation to eliminate items that will compete for the student’s attention.

  3. Short-Cut Strategies use plans, personal rules, or habits to link cues, like a prompt, with desired actions.

  4. A plan links a situation with a desired response. For example, before leaving school a student can create a study plan with prompts: “When I get home I will go to my room and study.” The plan directs the student’s attention to help them connect getting home with studying. A choice has been made, avoiding the trap of getting home and then deciding to spend time on the phone rather than studying. - Less choice helps direct students toward their goals. - Consistently linking plans with good outcomes can help form new habits.

  5. Change the way you think. When situations and temptations cannot be changed, students can still change the way they think. Motivation is stronger when students believe that they can succeed on a task. For instance, students tend to try harder when they consider frustration as a sign that they are challenging themselves and improving. Self-efficacy, a student’s belief in their ability to complete a task or achieve a goal, is increased when long-term goals are broken down into smaller goals. Learning to delay gratification can help students change their behavior. Students can change the value of something that tempts them to help them resist it. They can decide that they want to get their homework done more than they want to talk to their friend.



A successful executive functioning plan cannot be created without considering other skills. Executive functioning and self-regulation have many overlapping skills. Both executive functioning and self-regulation require students to set goals, use strategies, monitor their progress, and complete tasks.

Self-regulated learners have strong cognition, metacognition, and motivation skills. Executive functioning training can facilitate the development of the self-regulation independent learners need. Underlying learning and processing skills are interrelated and impact the students’ development. It is important to understand that skills can develop in uneven developmental patterns. Building one skill will enhance, or compensate, for another skill. Over time, with intervention, the skills will all develop.

Developing a targeted intervention plan entails understanding and working with the student beginning where they are. Identifying the skills that need development and creating a strategy that addresses those areas is important. Drawing on areas of strength to promote learning and strengthen self-confidence is also important.

Setting the student up for success and helping them achieve that success will continue to increase executive functioning and self-regulation skills. Change may be difficult at first, but it becomes easier with each new success.



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