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Executive Functioning Strategies for a Successful School Year

Executive Functioning Strategies for a Successful School Year

Executive Functioning Strategies for a Successful School Year


By Deborah Holmen, M.Ed., NBCT


Going back to school can be an exciting albeit stressful transition for both kids and parents. With a bit of education and preparation, parents can teach their children executive functioning skills to help them successfully manage their day-to-day lives.

According to Dr. Jennifer Sager, Licensed Clinical Psychologist & Clinical Manager of the ITM Group, “Executive functioning is your brain’s management system and is broken down into three main components: Working memory, self-control and flexible thinking. Children are not born ready-made, so parents and teachers are responsible for teaching their children these necessary skills.”


Breaking it down

“When a parent or teacher breaks these three elements down into smaller, more manageable parts, the child is at an advantage,” Dr. Sager said.

  • Working memory is defined as remembering details and recalling them when needed. For example, when reading a book, the reader has to remember what happened in previous chapters.
  • Emotional self-control means staying calm and managing emotions, like not being easily overwhelmed during challenging tasks.
  • Flexible thinking is the ability to move from one activity to another without causing anxiety or confusion. This might look like a middle schooler switching classes easily and effectively.


Numerous Benefits

Teaching kids executive functioning skills has numerous benefits:


Academic Success: Cognitive functioning skills are closely linked to academic achievement. Children with strong thinking skills tend to perform better in school, have higher grades and are more likely to graduate from high school and attend college.

Social-emotional Development: Executive functioning skills also play a critical role in social-emotional development. Children with strong aptitudes for cognitive control can better regulate their emotions, communicate effectively with others and form positive relationships.

Life Success: Teaching kids how to manage time and focus, how to get and stay organized and how to follow multi-step directions are all skills that will serve them well throughout their adult lives. These tools are essential for succeeding in the workplace, managing finances and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.



Importance of the basics

Dr. Sager works closely with families, teaching them the importance of sleep, nutrition and movement.


“Getting enough sleep is crucial for kids’ cognitive performance,” she said. “Lack of sleep can affect attention, memory and decision-making skills, leading to mood swings and behavioral issues. Prioritizing sleep can help children establish healthy sleep habits and improve their executive functioning for success in all aspects of life.”

Dr. Sager states that good-quality proteins are essential brain food for children. “Brain fog is often related to poor diet, so preparing daily snacks and lunches the night before can help make mornings more efficient and stress-free. Also, proper hydration is critical. Many young people aren’t staying hydrated, causing other symptoms that mimic heart palpitations. Dehydration causes the muscles near the heart to flutter and aren’t always heart palpitations. It can be a cascading effect if they don’t hydrate enough.”

Organize the fridge with ready-to-grab food. On grocery days, kids can help by cutting vegetables, divvying snacks in baggies or containers and filling water bottles.

Regular exercise also boosts the ability to stay focused, switch between tasks smoothly and remember multiple things at once. Encouraging children to participate in enjoyable physical activities and sports can help foster these benefits.


Tools of the Trade

Students often need help staying focused and organized. Fortunately, a few simple tools can help students stay on track and succeed in their studies.

Planners: Planners and agendas are a great way for students to keep track of their assignments, projects and other important deadlines. Students can write down due dates, set reminders and check off completed tasks, helping them prioritize their work and stay on top of their responsibilities.

Folders and Binders: Folders and binders are essential for organizing papers and assignments. Students can use different folders or sections to separate subjects or projects, making it easier to find what they need when they need it. This also makes it more likely that assignments get turned in and important papers make it home to parents.

Color-Coding: Color coding is an easy but effective organizational tool that can help students visually organize their materials. For example, they can use different colored highlighters for each subject or to differentiate between types of assignments like homework, projects and tests. This helps to trigger memory with important information.

Stay on Track

Alarms and digital reminders can also help kids tackle their tasks and assignments. An excellent tool for focus management, alarms can be used for time blocking, which is dedicating specific allocations of time to exclusively one subject or task. Reminders are useful for helping students develop a sense of responsibility and deadline management.

Clean Backpack, Clean Mind!

In addition to an organized agenda, having a well-prepared, uncluttered backpack can help make things run smoother. Backpacks should be packed and organized nightly, making sure to check for necessary supplies and class materials. Doing so minimizes stress throughout the school day, allowing kids to stay focused and on-task. Setting positive reinforcements for an organized backpack helps reassure the child they are managing their things well.

Age-appropriate tools can help students master organizational skills and learn which areas need extra assistance. Using various forms of organizers and devices can alleviate last-minute panic and help the day run smoothly.


An executive functioning toolkit is essential to creating a more efficient and stress-free back-to-school plan. With a bit of legwork and some purposeful teaching, any parent can help their student hone these skills that will set them up for a successful year ahead.


See Also


Tools for all ages

Elementary school children’s tools

  • Create a daily routine
  • Post and share directions –– written and spoken instructions
  • Homework chart on the fridge
  • To-do lists with positive reinforcements –– break lists down into smaller parts
  • Egg timer or digital timer
  • Noise-canceling headphones
  • Analog Clock in the bedroom


Middle and High schooler’s tools

  • Digital agendas and schedules
  • Organization, goal setting apps (listed below)
  • Checklists
  • Timers
  • Sticky notes
  • Calendars



Digital Education Apps

  • Student Planner Apps
  • To-Do List Apps
  • Note-Taking Apps
  • Writing Apps
  • Project Management Apps
  • Flashcard Apps
  • Distraction-Blocking Apps
  • Habit-Tracking Apps



Several local organizations can help parents and families learn more about, and seek help addressing, executive functioning skills.


Dr. Jennifer Sager – Executive functioning specialist

Behavior Learning Systems, LLC – Board-Certified Behavior Analysts and Registered Behavior Technicians for children and families

Sage Wellness – Kids and teen counseling

Rising Calm Center – Specializing in Emotional regulation and social skills for kids, teens and families



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