Simple Habits of Successful Students

What exactly is Executive Functioning?

executive functioning skills

executive functioning skills


According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, “executive functioning skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.” In other words, EF skills allow us to set goals, establish a plan to reach those goals, and then carry out that plan. The most successful students have strong executive functioning skills built through self-reflection and habit building. Check out these concrete steps kids (and adults!) can take to build these skills for school and life.

Set yourself up for success:

We’ve all heard the expression, “Work smarter, not harder.”  Students who know themselves as learners can approach every situation in a way that plays to their strengths. 

  • Set incremental, process-oriented goals:  Our brains respond more quickly to positive reinforcement than negative reinforcement. Therefore, it’s important to set goals that are small enough that you can expect to be successful more than half of the time; anything less is discouraging. Short-term goals that focus on taking action are the key to achieving dreams in the long-term. If you want to earn a particular grade, set a goal tied to how much time you will study—and be reasonable.  As you achieve smaller goals, you can set new ones to move you closer to your big goals.    
  • Build a set of personalized strategies: Most students default to a predictable set of EF strategies: they build Quizlet decks, use a binder and write down assignments in the school-provided planner. Those often work well but aren’t the best approach for every student. Take the time to reflect on what works and what doesn’t for you specifically.  Recognize your strengths and weaknesses and build your systems around those qualities. This way, any time you spend on moving toward your goals is maximized.  
  • Approach work with intention: The idea of the right tool for the right job also applies to academics. In addition to picking strategies based on your strengths and weaknesses, you should also think about varying those strategies based on the subject or task at hand. Studying for chemistry is not the same as studying for literature.  Likewise, reading a textbook is a different process than reading a novel. Developing subject and circumstance-specific study strategies can help make the most of your efforts.  
  • Set aside time to plan and organize: Being organized takes maintenance. Any time you build a system to manage your tasks, schedule your time, or organize your things, be sure to consider how and when you will do the necessary up-keep of reprioritizing, adding new things, or cleaning up. 
  • Self-advocate: Ask for help when you need it—this includes speaking up if your teachers (or anyone else) want you to use a system that you know won’t work for you.  Most of the time they simply want to know that you have some system in place and are happy to defer to you if you can explain your process.

Create supports

  • Use timers:  Timers can be an excellent support to our productivity. Use them to limit breaks to a reasonable length or manage brainstorming sessions. Get started with a tough task by committing to just the first 15 or 20 minutes or hold yourself accountable to a plan you’ve made. 
  • Create lists: Our brains can only hold so much information! Consider creative ways that lists can help you: a list by the door of the items you need each day, a list of classmates to reach out to if you have a question about an assignment, a motivational list of the goals you are working towards.
  • Reward yourself: Sometimes the things we need to do are so difficult or so otherwise unpleasant that it’s reasonable to create outside motivators. Additionally, when you do great work, it’s good to give yourself positive reinforcement. Think about what kinds of rewards are meaningful to you: it might be as simple as noticing your decreased stress or taking a break to dance it out after you prep for a tough test.

Curious to know more about the EF program? Looking to build your executive functioning skills? Check out our full FAQ here or contact us for more information and to schedule a consultation. And for more tips and tricks from our team on starting the school year off successfully, check out our previous  Executive Functioning Webinar Series.

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