What Executive Function Skills are Expected in Elementary School?
Elementary school is a critical time for the development of foundational Executive Function skills. These include:
- Self-regulation – managing strong emotions and inhibiting impulsive behaviors
- Attention – sustaining focus, especially for multi-part tasks
- Task Initiation – starting a non-preferred task
- Organization – maintaining materials at home and in school
- Planning – mapping out multi-step tasks such as longer-term class projects
While some children seem to develop these skills seamlessly, many struggle and benefit from a level of direct 1:1 instruction and support that is often unavailable in most Elementary schools.
What are the signs of Executive Function problems in Elementary students?
Parents often begin to see signs of Executive Function challenges in their child in Elementary school, when the student faces new expectations for sitting and working quietly and following classroom rules.
Parents and teachers may notice:
- Behavior or emotion management challenges – the student seems to lack the same degree of self-control as peers, is easily frustrated, anxious, and/or has difficulty settling down to do work
- Academic challenges – the student may lack persistence or often not start or complete even small assignments or have trouble locating materials for schoolwork
- Social challenges – the student may have trouble cooperating with peers or participating in group activities, leading to challenges in making and maintaining friendships
Parents of Elementary school children who are struggling may wonder:
- Why does my child take so long to do homework?
- How can I help my child calm down?
- How can I reduce my child’s temper tantrums?
- How can I help my child become more organized?
Is it better to wait until Middle School to work on Executive Function Skills?
While in Elementary school these challenges may seem relatively minor, they have increasing relevance as a child matures, ultimately playing a central role in shaping student achievement. Unaddressed, a deficit in the critical foundational area of Executive Function skills can have long-term effects on a student’s success and, consequently, their self-confidence as a learner. These skills form the basis of a smooth transition to middle school, where academic demands increase rapidly.
What does it feel like to be an Elementary student with Executive Function challenges in school?
As an adult, it’s reasonable to think that being an Elementary student is the easiest life around — no bills to pay, no worries about your career, no responsibilities other than some homework and a couple of simple household chores. But can you imagine being a child whose everyday world of school and home feels overwhelming because they lack the Executive Function skills needed to keep focused, manage their time, and stay organized? Consider the stress that’s a daily part of the life of an Elementary student with Executive Function challenges in these three typical scenarios:
Situation #1: Focusing in Class
Imagine yourself as a fourth grader, fidget toy in hand, in the first weeks of school. Your teacher is at the front of the class, explaining the directions for an activity. You realize about halfway through her explanation that you hadn’t really been listening, because you were distracted by the fact that your classmate was wearing the same Minecraft shirt that you have. When the other students open their notebooks and start writing, you just sit there, frozen at your desk, not knowing what to do, scared that you are about to get in trouble for not doing your work. You come home feeling worried that your teacher is annoyed with you – and more and more you start to dread the next day of school.
Situation #2: Budgeting Time for Homework
You’ve been assigned a worksheet on fractions, and you have to write an outline for a persuasive essay. You sit down to start the outline, but then you notice your cat is staring at you with those adorable big green eyes and you simply must play with her now! You go back to your outline for a while, but then you realize you are hungry and need a snack. At this rate, writing your outline is taking what seems like forever. By the time you leave for soccer practice, you’re only halfway done with the outline, and you haven’t even started on that math worksheet. You recollect the easy days of second grade, when all you had to do was read for fifteen minutes.
Situation #3: Cleaning Your Room
You’ve just finished a tough week at school and now your parents are expecting you to get your room clean. You know where everything is, sort of. Anyway, how on earth do you even start such a massive job? It’s just too overwhelming to think about. Maybe if you distract your parents by picking a fight with your brother, they’ll forget all about this room-cleaning thing.
The transition from Kindergarten to Elementary school means that a lot more is required of students in terms of focusing in class, budgeting time for homework, and even taking on more responsibility at home. Students with weak Executive Functioning can experience stress and frustration when they have trouble meeting those increased demands. It’s good to know that with the right tools, strategies, and support, students can learn the Executive Function skills that are needed in Elementary school and beyond.
How are Executive Function Skills Evaluated in Elementary Students?
If you are concerned about your child’s Executive Function skills, a comprehensive neuropsychological evaluation can help shed light into what is going on and how to help. The purpose of the evaluation is to identify your child’s unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses in the areas of cognitive functioning, information processing, memory, learning, executive functioning, academic achievement, and social-emotional functioning. When specifically evaluating Executive Function, it is best practice to have a psychologist conduct parent and teacher interviews, behavior observations, behavior rating scales, along with formal standardized assessment. This combination of information will illuminate specific Executive Function weaknesses (i.e., task initiation, sustained attention, cognitive flexibility) and real-life challenges likely affected by the deficits (i.e., problems with following directions, organizational skills, handling long-term assignments, homework completion). The collective goal of gathering all of this information is to determine how it manifests in real life in both the home and school environments, and then, most importantly, where and how we can intervene. Of note, the evaluation should not only highlight specific Executive Function weaknesses but also report on cognitive strengths that can be used to help compensate for the weaknesses. For example, if a child has strong visual-spatial abilities, then it will be critical to employ an intervention with a lot of visual aids and supports.
Special Education evaluations
Another way to have your child evaluated is through your public school system. School-aged children can be referred for a special education evaluation for many reasons, either by a parent or by a staff member. Referred students are typically struggling for a period of time, despite receiving intervention in many forms, such as small group or one to one help, and may not be making consistent or adequate progress. Concerns may be related to the student’s academics, behavior or social-emotional adjustment or functioning, communication abilities, motor skills, or a combination of these areas. Depending on your state, and whether your school district is using Response to Intervention (RTI), which is a tiered system of support, students may go through a series of interventions before being referred for a special education evaluation.
One example of a special education referral may be for an Elementary school child who has been struggling in reading and is not making progress on reading assessments given by his teacher, despite participation in a small intensive reading group and one to one time with the teacher or a reading specialist.
The evaluation, either parent requested or staff referred, must be completed within the federal or state established timeline. According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) federal law states a 60-day timeline for the completion of initial evaluations, but states may determine their own timeline. The federal or state law also dictates the timeline in which the Team must come together to review the evaluations. In Massachusetts, for example, the Team must meet within 45 days of that signature date to determine eligibility, based on formal assessments, observations, review of school records and educational history, as well as data and information brought to the team by the classroom teacher, parents, and any other individual who may work with the student (e.g. a reading specialist, counselor, etc).
While an evaluation can often uncover useful information that aids in proper educational decision making, some states may require medical documentation or diagnosis by your child’s physician in order to receive individualized and unique instructional supports and accommodations within the classroom. The sharing of testing results with your child’s doctor may be beneficial in order to gain the most appropriate supports when your child is struggling in school. For information related to Federal Guidelines, visit the U.S. Department of Education’s website. Your state’s specific regulations for special education eligibility are typically easy to locate via a google search.
How Executive Function Coaches Help Elementary School Students
Executive Function coaches help Elementary school students to:
- Learn about their brains and how emotions affect learning
- Become increasingly independent with daily routines
- Learn and practice methods to cope with strong emotions
- Learn and apply strategies to get work started and persist with challenging work
- Learn strategies to stay on task and maintain attention
- Develop personalized systems to organize backpacks and work areas
- Learn how to break assignments into smaller parts and how to plan when the work will be done
- Learn how to gain awareness of expected behaviors in group settings
- Develop self-reflection skills to help them take ownership of new habits
- Use technology that improves productivity
Case Study: Noah, a 3rd grade student with ADHD and anxiety
Noah* was a bright, active boy who struggled with self-regulation of his emotions and behavior. His parents turned to coaching when those struggles started affecting both home and school functioning.
Noah recently was recently diagnosed with ADHD combined type and anxiety. He struggled at home with significant behaviors including screaming, crying, tantrums, and mild aggression. He is disorganized and parents do a lot of over-compensating to avoid struggles. At school he has struggled with emotion regulation too, but it has not presented as intensely as at home (eg: crying, disrupting class with irrelevant questions, and social challenges). Noah also struggles with organization of writing.
Noah attended a small private Elementary school. Although he did not have a 504 plan in place, the school made the following accommodations for him: checking-in with counselor as needed, meeting with learning specialist weekly, access to movement breaks, and use of a “wiggle chair” and a standing desk, as needed.
Noah is the youngest of 3 children. Both his parents work full-time. His parents and his grandmother make sure his homework is complete, his backpack is ready for school, and his daily routines are completed. Noah’s parents often over-compensate without even realizing it because their life is busy, and they are trying to get through daily tasks without Noah becoming upset, as it negatively affects the entire family.
How Executive Function Coaching Helped Noah
An Intake Meeting Provides a Roadmap: Together with Noah, his parents, and supporting material and input, his intake specialist identified challenges around Noah’s emotion regulation, organization for his space and belongings, and metacognitive skills during the initial intake meeting. His parents noted that he has more energy than most of his peers and is very reactive to how other people act and feel, both of which can cause him extreme distress. The coach observed Noah to be so anxious and hyperactive that he was not able to take part in the majority of the intake session. Initially he hid under bean bags, was not able to answer questions, and interrupted the session with irrelevant comments and questions. Parents also noted Noah is not always able to persevere through assigned tasks and his daily routines, including going to sleep by himself.
Agreed on Goals and Priorities: Noah’s parents agreed to target the following areas of concern: Emotion Regulation, Organization, Sustained Attention, and Metacognition.
Established Means of Support: Due to the nature of Noah’s challenges, the family and the intake specialist decided to pursue in-person coaching twice a week with an Executive Function coach who has a background in special education and mental health, as well as an expertise in emotion regulation issues. Coaching sessions took place once a week at school and once a week at home.
Noah’s Progress with Coaching
Coaching Approach: Initially, Noah had difficulty getting to his desk for coaching, bolting out of the workspace room, and staying on task for more than two minutes. He also had emotion regulation challenges that resulted in disruptive behavior at home and at school. To address these challenges, the coach came up with several strategies. First, the coach designed a visual incentive plan to increase his productivity during sessions and targeted keeping his body in the workspace, following directions, and staying on task. Second, the coach introduced Noah to a systematic, cognitive behavioral approach used to teach self-regulation. Finally, the coach introduced visual guides and checklists to increase his independence with self-care routines and maintaining his backpack.
Six-Week Progress Update: The coach saw immediate progress with Noah. Very quickly, Noah became invested in his incentive plan and was staying in the workspace for the entire coaching session. Through collaboration with his parents and school team, Noah also had begun to recognize that his new tools helped him to do things on his own, and decreased his episodes of feeling upset and overwhelmed. By addressing Noah’s underlying challenges in self-regulation, Executive Function, and social thinking, Noah had also begun to regulate himself better both in school and at home. His teachers observed his improved relationships with peers, increased work completion, and fewer disruptive behaviors. His parents noted less behavior challenges at home and that he was starting to become more motivated to be independent with his self-care routines. It was determined that future coaching sessions were to continue to build upon these tools as the coach worked on Noah’s identified priorities.
Long-Term Outcome: At the time of this case study, Noah had completed eight sessions with his coach. He had built a solid, positive rapport with his coach and was beginning to make changes in his behavior that would be sustainable and support the increasing demands that he would face as he got older. It was determined that long-term efforts on the part of the coach, school, and family would be required to continue to help Noah but the results to date were encouraging.
*Name and photo changed to protect confidentiality
Case Study: Kelly, a 5th grade student with Nonverbal Learning Disability
Kelly* was an enthusiastic and resilient little girl who struggled to keep pace with increasing academic demands. She found it particularly challenging to see the big picture, which impacted her ability to make deeper connections in her learning and to navigate social situations. She had been diagnosed with anxiety and Nonverbal Learning Disability (NVLD). Kelly struggled with all aspects of Executive Function skills. In addition, Kelly had been a victim of severe bullying that resulted in a change of school starting in 4th grade.
Kelly attended a small Catholic School. She was not on an IEP or 504 Plan. Accommodations were being implemented on an as needed basis. These included being part of a homework support group, taking tests in a quiet non-distracting area, and allowing Kelly to use different tools and strategies for reading and writing assignments.
Kelly’s parents were both very involved and receptive to working in collaboration with the coach. Her parents were very concerned and always tried to do what was in Kelly’s best interest.
How Executive Function Coaching Helped Kelly
An Intake Meeting Provides a Roadmap: Together with Kelly and input from her parents, as well as through supporting material such as evaluations and teachers’ comments, the intake specialist identified Executive Function challenges: planning and prioritizing; reading efficiency; study skills/test preparation, and emotional regulation. Kelly’s parents noted that she can be a perfectionist, that she seemed to work much harder than her peers, and that writing can be difficult for her. Generalized anxiety, as well as test anxiety, was also noted during the intake session.
Agreed on Goals and Priorities: Together Kelly, her parents, and the intake specialist agreed to target the following areas of concern: sustained attention for homework, study skills for homework and test preparation, metacognition, and emotional regulation for problem solving (including anxiety). After a year of coaching these initial priorities would be assessed with Kelly and her parents to determine new areas that would be addressed moving forward.
Established Means of Support: Coaching sessions took place on a weekly basis in Kelly’s home with an Executive Function coach who had a background in special education and mental health, with an expertise in elementary age children with emotion regulation issues.
Kelly’s Progress with Coaching
Coaching Approach: To address Kelly’s coaching priorities, the coach helped her with several strategies. First, the coach addressed her emotion regulation and homework difficulties by introducing her to a structured, visual homework plan. The goal of the homework plan was to begin to help Kelly with time management and planning. A big piece of this included showing Kelly how to break down bigger assignments into smaller pieces, and to understand how the individual parts created the larger whole. Kelly struggled with interpreting and predicting time so part of her homework plan involved a tool for gauging how the task would or would not fit into her day, and in some cases later in the week. Second, the coach introduced Kelly to several emotion regulation tools, as her anxiety was having a negative effect on her school performance and social relationships. These cognitive interventions helped Kelly address the thought processes behind her emotions, which then helped her develop problem solving skills. Kelly was introduced to different organizational frames to support her reading efficiency, writing, and test preparation. With this extra scaffolding Kelly began to organize her language and ideas more independently. Once she was able to organize her ideas, she had an easier time organizing, reflecting, and revising her writing. Kelly’s mother updated the coach on issues that arose in between sessions and scheduled time to talk with the coach about concerns the school may have had.
Six-Month Progress Update: By six months, Kelly had made some wonderful progress. She had learned to use a variety of tools such as a homework plan and color-coding and to apply them effectively. Kelly independently created a homework plan each afternoon, filed her school papers into a 3-tier accordion folder on a weekly basis, and used a summary strategy at the end of each chapter of the books she was reading for school. Kelly showed major improvements in many different areas, and most importantly began to use positive self-talk during periods of stress and anxiety. In collaboration with the coach, the family came to understand the need for neuropsychological testing, and found this comprehensive process a valuable way to better understand their daughter. The testing results suggested recommendations for school, however her parents were apprehensive to share them with the school. With support and encouragement from Kelly’s coach, the parents slowly began to share pieces of the testing with her school and to work together to accommodate Kelly in the classroom.
Long-Term Outcome: Kelly continues to make significant improvement. She and her parents have decided to continue with weekly coaching and is now in her second year working with Beyond BookSmart. She has met several of her initial coaching priorities, and is now working toward some additional ones. Ongoing collaboration and coaching continues.
*Name and photo changed to protect confidentiality
What Can Parents Do to Help Their Elementary School Children Develop Executive Function Skills?
Organize a work station at home
- Designate a separate and quiet work area at home. Make sure there’s a desk or tabletop with good lighting and comfortable seating (or a large exercise ball for kids who need to fidget).
- Hang up the school schedule and a small whiteboard or bulletin board for posting reminders.
- Use and label bookshelves as well as see-through plastic jars, bins, or stackable drawers for storage. This makes stored materials easy to locate when they’re needed.
- Use In and Out homework trays to track new and completed assignments.
- Have a 3-tier organizer for things in-progress, to do later, and file away.
Organize school supplies
- Use a 5 subject notebook and binders with tabs to consolidate course notes when allowed.
- Color code supplies by subject. For example, make the composition book, folder, and binder for class X all red. Textbooks can also be color coded using book sock covers. Color coding makes supplies easy to track and sort. It’s an especially helpful strategy when there’s an extensive supply list or your child is using a locker and transitioning between classrooms.
- Label all binders, notebooks, and folders with their respective subject. Add the student’s name and homeroom to the inside flap of everything so it can be returned if it’s ever lost.
Organize the backpack
- It’s best to start with a durable backpack with enough zipper compartments so that everything can have an assigned pocket. Things are less likely to get lost if they are always kept in the same place. For example, pens should always be kept in the same front pocket for quick and easy access.
- Create a backpack checklist to keep the backpack organized. The checklist describes each compartment and assigns each space a purpose. Photos are great for this!
- Prepare the backpack the night before and station it by the front door for school the next morning to minimize frantic morning searches.
- Sort through and clean out the backpack and its contents at least once a week. This will prevent loose papers and old snacks from collecting and provide you the heads up when you need to replenish supplies of pens or paper (before it becomes an emergency).
- Use a weekly homework planner and update it consistently. Highlight important due dates in a noticeable color, and cross off assignments as they are completed. An important tip for making planners work well for a student is to write “no homework” when nothing is due the next day rather than leave a subject blank. Why? It’s a great double-check strategy – when students actively note “no homework” days, they are both reminding themselves that they checked and teaching themselves that a blank space in their planner needs further investigation.
- Use a paper clip, binder clip, or personalized bookmark to mark the page or week inside the planner so it’s easy to flip to in a hurry.
- Have an expandable 7-pocket file folder or accordion folder divided by subject for all homework. Keeping all homework in one folder divided by subject makes it easier to remember and carry between classes or to and from school.
Maintain organization consistently
Students who are organized are equipped to perform better in school. And just as you need to maintain your house (or your health) with regular attention, students also need to maintain their organizational systems on a regular basis. Some kids do well with a Sunday evening clean out of folders and backpacks to ready them for the week; others prefer a daily maintenance habit. Either way, a regularly scheduled, structured expectation for organizing belongings and spaces can go a long way toward helping your child develop solid organizational skills that will set them up for success in the classroom and over their lifetime.
Encourage your child to use graphic organizers for writing assignments
A graphic organizer functions as a template, formatted to keep a student’s writing organized. For students who feel overwhelmed by a writing task, graphic organizers provide a way to break up the task into clear and manageable parts. It’s like a road map to show them where to go. Many students find that once they learn how to organize an essay with a graphic organizer, writing becomes easier and much less stressful.
There are many different types of graphic organizers. So, one may ask, which are most effective? Just as your calendar template serves a different purpose from your resume template, the type of template a student needs depends upon the type of writing that has been assigned.
According to the Common Core, students are expected to become proficient with the following types of writing: 1) opinion/argumentative/persuasive writing, 2) informative/ explanatory writing, and 3) narrative writing.
The organizers listed below, memorably named OREO, BLT, and Ice Cream graphic organizers, are formatted to help students in elementary school organize their opinion writing, informative writing, and narrative writing, respectively.
- The OREO Graphic Organizer lays out the basic structure for an opinion essay. OREO stands for Opinion, Reason, Example, and Opinion restated.
- The BLT Graphic Organizer helps a student to plan a single, informative paragraph. The paragraph must include an introduction, a thesis statement, supporting sentences, and a conclusion.
- The Ice Cream Graphic Organizer is a template for narrative writing. It includes the basic components of a narrative essay: characters, setting, problem/event, and resolution.
Managing emotions through yoga
Mind-body practices like yoga are ideal for developing emotional regulation skills because to make sense of emotions, both the mind and the body must be involved. Emotions are interpreted and labeled by the mind, but they are experienced through the body. A racing heart, butterflies in the stomach, a tightly clenched jaw and even an attack of the giggles are all physical phenomena that we learn to associate with various emotional states.
Yoga offers tools for building self-regulation skills (such as awareness and control) that are fun, healthy, and compelling for children. The balance pose called the tree pose is one effective tool to work with. To do tree pose, one foot is planted firmly on the ground like a tree trunk. The other foot is lifted off the floor, knee turned out, foot resting on the calf or thigh of the standing leg. The arms may be in a variety of positions that can make the balance easier or more challenging.
The skills practiced in tree pose directly apply to regulating emotions. To hold tree pose, students need to filter out external distractions, tune in to internal sensations, and continually adjust their muscle actions. In any situation children can learn to engage in a similar process; noticing sensations in their bodies, recognizing the physical cues that may signal frustration, overwhelm or exhaustion, and applying appropriate techniques to maintain emotional balance.