George Lucas Educational Foundation
Illustration of student head with classroom design materials swirling around while teacher leads class
Alice Mollon for Edutopia
The Research Is in

7 Ways to Support Executive Function in Your Classroom

How to design your classroom environment and materials to support a wide range of executive function skills, from managing distractions to boosting planning skills.

February 16, 2024

Our understanding of executive functions is due, at least in part, to a tragic accident. 

In 1848, Phineas Gage was working on a blast crew, preparing the bed of the Rutland & Burlington Railroad in Vermont. As he placed explosive gunpowder in a hole, it brushed against a 3-foot-long iron bar, causing an explosion and scattering high-velocity projectiles. The iron bar pierced Gage’s skull, destroying a portion at the front of his brain—what we now call the prefrontal cortex, the seat of executive function skills like working memory, planning, organizing, and attention. Gage lived but abandoned his future plans, his doctors noted, rarely thought about the consequences of his actions, and could no longer hold a steady job.

“Today, it is well understood that the prefrontal cortex of the brain controls the organization of behavior, including emotions and inhibitions,” researchers explain in a 2020 study. Prior to Gage’s case, the frontal lobes were considered “silent structures, without function and unrelated to human behavior.”

Inside classrooms, executive function skills—the ability to follow instructions, focus while managing distractions, and flexibly plan for academic projects, according to Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child—are the very underpinning of academic success. In a large-scale study involving over 11,000 students, researchers discovered that young students with executive function problems were 10 times more likely to struggle academically as they got older. “Deficits in executive function,” the researchers concluded, “increased kindergarten children’s risk of experiencing repeated mathematics, reading, and science difficulties across elementary school.” Other research suggests that “executive functions account for more than two times more variation in final grades than does IQ, even in college.” 

Creating a classroom environment that supports students’ executive function skills requires a thoughtful approach—no matter the grade level. Distractions and disorganization can hide inside classroom and lesson design, and adjustments to both little and big details can dramatically improve outcomes.

The Clarity Problem

To reduce cognitive load—the demands placed on a student’s working memory— aim for clarity in handouts, classroom instructions, presentations, and lectures. 

The best lectures are “well organized, clearly presented, and reduce unnecessary mental load,” explains psychology professor William Cerbin in a 2018 study. Break longer lectures into smaller, more manageable chunks, and be sure to build in periodic breaks to help students catch up, ask questions, and consolidate their learning, Cerbin’s review of the research suggests.

Classroom instructions can cobble the works. When preparing materials for distribution, consider using headings and annotations to help students focus on high-priority content. Use salient visual cues—underlines, highlights, and arrows that draw attention to critical material, for example—to boost retention by up to 36 percent, according to a 2020 study. Breaking up a wall of text with insightful subheadings, meanwhile, can double reading comprehension by improving a student’s “overview of the texts’ content” while encouraging them to “think more about the content during reading,” according to a 2023 study

Student feedback can be a powerful antidote to confusing materials—what feels like a clear lesson to you may be a jumble to your students. Create simple surveys asking questions like “Was there anything that was confusing to you?” or “What was the hardest part of the lesson?” to see what’s working well or needs to be changed, researchers explain in a 2019 study.

Scattered Young Minds

Organizing increasingly complicated academic and social calendars doesn’t come naturally to kids, but successfully teaching them to “learn how to learn” can dramatically improve academic performance, according to a 2020 study.

Skills like making priority lists and creating and updating digital schedules should be taught the way we teach traditional subjects, say the renowned psychology professors and researchers Angela Duckworth and Ethan Kross. For younger students, create and sustain routines for entering, transitioning, and leaving the classroom. Use visual aids—displayed in prominent areas—to remind students of expected behaviors. A 2023 study, for example, found that the use of a color wheel to signal to students when it’s time to listen to the teacher, work independently or in groups, or transition between activities reduced the number of times the teacher had to repeat instructions by 75 percent. Taken together, these approaches reduce the number of factors that kids need to manage and clear the way for better learning.

For older kids, make organizational tactics an integral part of the curriculum so that the “skills or the habits will be rewarded” and teens will be more “receptive and eager” to learn them, according to Duckworth. For example, consider maintaining a yearlong classroom calendar of due dates, and have students periodically work together to map out study plans in small groups. Teachers at King Middle School in Portland, Maine, actively model how to prioritize tasks and manage their schedules in front of the classroom, and then invite students to do the same. “In eighth grade there’s a ton of different deadlines and work to manage,” says ELA teacher Catherine Paul. “So, we do the ABC priority list in order to help them.”

Scaffolding for Learning Differences

Students come into the classroom with a wide range of executive function capabilities. For example, students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia “perform worse than typically developing children on all executive function dimensions,” according to a 2023 study, while students with autism and ADHD struggle with “attention, flexibility, visuospatial abilities, working memory, processing speed, and response inhibition,” compared with their peers, a 2023 meta-analysis found. 

Since 75 percent of students with a learning disability spend most of their day in mainstream classrooms, it’s likely that you’ll have to make accommodations.

Students with learning disabilities frequently have to work harder—and require more support—than their peers, researchers explain in a 2014 study, warranting the use of more explicit approaches that often benefit all students. Former special education teacher Brittany Patrick recommends narrating your thought processes when going over a lesson or discussing rules and expectations, for example. 

For complex activities, consider breaking tasks down into smaller steps and modeling them aloud. Instructional aids such as graphic organizers and other visual scaffolds can help students organize and retain information more effectively, while new AI tools like Diffit allow educators to create leveled texts for struggling readers within seconds.

Designing a Clutter-Free Learning Space

A well-designed classroom doesn’t just showcase learning materials—it also supports the development of a range of executive function skills. Students should be in an environment that’s free from distractions or overstimulation. One often-overlooked source, researchers suggest, are classroom walls, which should be “designed to provide a lively sense to the classroom, but without becoming chaotic in feel,” a 2015 study recommends. “As a rule of thumb, 20 to 50 percent of the available wall space should be kept clear.”

Avoid the clutter while showcasing student work and academically relevant visual aids such as anchor charts and maps. To guard against the slow creep of accumulation, make it a rule to remove older material as you add new items to your displays. Also consider how environmental features—such as uneven or glaring light, noise, excessive heat, or poor ventilation—can impair cognitive performance when students are trying to focus. 

Mobile phones have emerged as a potent source of distraction in middle and high school. “Mere proximity to a mobile device was found to distract students and to have a negative impact on learning in 14 countries,” according to a 2023 UNESCO report, and separating students from their phones during class time is now widely considered to be best practice. The best phone policies come from the top and are consistently enforced throughout the school, according to one comprehensive study from the United Kingdom.

Don’t Forget Your Virtual Classroom

Your online working spaces should be as clearly signposted and well-organized as your physical ones.

Streamline your digital classroom’s navigation, create a single hub or page for crucial daily activities, and think through how online communications, documents, and assignments are organized. “Establish clear routines and expectations in your Learning Management System (LMS) early on,” writes science teacher Ian Kelleher—incorporate some time to practice submitting assignments, for example, and stick to your routines so the tools become second nature for students. A well-designed LMS can be “a pillar of certainty in an ever-changing school landscape,” helping students plan, be organized, and stay on task.

Managing a Finite Resource

If you’ve played the classic Simon memory game—where players are tasked with repeating a series of lights on a colorful disc—you know that there’s a finite limit to the span of colors a person can remember: typically around seven (dropping down to between four and six for young children).

When presenting students with new information, consider how unfamiliarity and difficulty may be contributing to cognitive load. One 2019 study found that when students understood less than 59 percent of the key terms in a lesson experience, it “compromised” comprehension, arguing for simple vocabulary prep before kids wrestle with the core material.

Be sure to make the time to connect new material to prior knowledge, review foundational information frequently, and build in regular brain breaks, which recent research suggests are more crucial to learning than we formerly realized. Finally, when giving a lecture or conducting a lesson, provide ample opportunities for students to offload some of that information and process it before it overwhelms them—use handouts that summarize crucial details, for example, or take a brief intermission in the lecture to allow students to turn-and-talk to consolidate their insights.

The Problem With Testing

When researchers analyzed the impact of an upcoming high-stakes exam on anxiety levels, they discovered that the mere anticipation—not the test itself—led to a 15 percent increase in cortisol levels, resulting in a 80-point drop in SAT scores. Too much high-stakes testing can frazzle the nerves and result in a cascade of self-regulation problems, from poor sleep to procrastination, according to a 2021 study

You don’t want to give up on tests entirely—that can set students up to perform poorly in future stressful situations. To reduce anxiety and safeguard self-regulation skills, consider using more frequent low-stakes quizzes, or drop the lowest grades from your scoring rubric. Effective strategies such as Test Talks—a pretest activity where students talk about the test in small groups—and short writing exercises that reframe stress as an energetic boost, instead of a burden, can give students the self-regulation skills to better manage stress levels.

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