How do you teach executive functioning skills to a rigid child?

Backpack with school supplies

Executive functioning skills

Today I spoke to a mom of a 10 year old boy who is struggling in school. This student, Ben, is a bright boy who had been diagnosed with ADHD and a processing speed disorder. Ben’s reading, writing and math fluency scores are below his achievement in each area. While Ben has the accommodation of extra time it doesn’t help him, as he won’t use the extra time available to him. Ben has trouble organizing his thoughts, so he has a difficult time starting a task. Additionally, his working memory skills are weak making it hard for him integrate new ideas with previous knowledge. Ben would rather do things the way that he has always done them making it hard to teach him new strategies. Ben tends towards having a meltdown when he doesn’t like someone or something.

My suggestions to Ben’s mom were:

  • Continue working with their medical doctor for interventions for ADHD.
  • Start with an educational coach or specialist who understands executive functioning and rigid thinking.
  • Begin the intervention with full homework support and slowly begin pointing out areas where a plan would help him.
  • Developing Ben’s awareness of his thought processes through discussions of what he is thinking, along with using metacognitive strategies will allow him to begin to build the skills needed to begin new tasks. The metacognitive strategies can also be designed to help him with his behavioral regulation.
  • Once Ben is comfortable with his new helper, the educator can begin using the STOP, THINK, PLAN, DO mantra to help Ben begin to figure out how to approach a task. Learn more about using this mantra and building flexible thinking skills at Flexible Thinking

    stop think plan do jpeg

As Ben begins to learn how to approach a task and becomes willing to consider options that will help him learn better, he will be ready to learn the executive functioning skills of organization and time management.

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Slow Processing Speed…is it due to weak motor skills, weak auditory processing skills or weak executive function skills?


processing speed 

Slow processing speed can be due to more than just weak motor skills. Sarah’s experience highlights some of the more complex factors that should be considered for a child with slow processing speed.

Sarah is a diligent, athletic and caring 15-year-old girl. Sarah has always done well in school, but not without support. When Sarah entered ninth grade at her new high school her study skills deteriorated and she began to have trouble completing her homework and turning it in. In spite of Sarah’s best intentions she was not able to pull up her grades and complete her work. Based on recommendations from her school Sarah was evaluated to see if any learning issues were hindering her progress. The results of the evaluation demonstrated that while Sarah has an overall cognitive potential in the average range, her Processing Speed Index was significantly below her Verbal Comprehension and Working Memory Index scores.

The findings from Sarah’s evaluation indicate that her processing speed deficit is due to her difficulty with visual discrimination, auditory processing, and weak executive functioning skills. While inattentive ADHD was not completely ruled out, the examiners felt that Sarah’s main area of challenge was in the area of executive functioning rather than ADHD. Observation of Sarah during testing demonstrated her difficulty with task initiation. Sarah’s auditory processing weakness resulted in a difficulty understanding directions. Without a complete understanding of directions Sarah often did not know what she was expected to do on the tasks presented. Sarah’s response to not fully understanding the directions given to her, was to stop and try to figure out what she was supposed to do before she began working. This delay significantly impacted the time that it took her to complete the tasks. In addition, without a full understanding of directions Sara often did not complete the tasks fully.

 Sarah’s challenge with executive functioning skills was evident in her difficulty starting tasks, as well as her difficulty organizing her thoughts and language as she listened to instructions. The combination of weak auditory processing skills along with weak organization and problem solving skills made it extremely difficult for Sarah to begin a new task.

 Sarah’s fine motor skills, reading skills and language skills were in the average range. Her slow processing speed affected her performance on writing and math tasks. In addition, Sarah needed extra time for reading comprehension tasks due to the complex language and organization processing required to comprehend the material.

 Recommendations to help students like Sarah

Classroom Recommendations and Accommodations

  • The following recommendations are suggested for use in the classroom:
    • Students will benefit from cueing so they know what to expect – check in with them periodically and preview what is to come.
    • Help students organize the information they hear in meaningful ways, including chunking the information into shorter steps or connecting new information with previously learned information.
    • Preview new concepts with students so they know what to expect – this will decrease stress and help with attention and engagement in the classroom.


Executive Function/Memory Skills

  • Build strategies to help students analyze, prioritize, and execute specific steps in a given assignment.
  • Encourage students to think through responses and take their time; many students with processing speed issues develop a compensatory strategy to rush through in order to finish work in time; these students would benefit from slowing down to process the information more deeply.
  • Teach students to stop and read directions carefully prior to starting a task.
  • Break down tasks and follow the order-checking work along the way.
  • Build memory skills by building associations to preexisting knowledge.
  • Rehearse new information to help encode it.
  • Encourage students to visualize what they are going to do before they begin a task.
  • Teach students strategies to increase engagement such as use of reminders (which can be set on devices such as the iPhone) to help build attention, awareness, structure and independent work habits.
  • Teach students to use self-talk to organize learning and performance strategies and to focus attention on tasks.
  • Teach students strategies to help recall information, such as PAR:

P= Picture it.
A= Associate it
R= Review it.


  • Teach students study and memory strategies such as:

o   “Chunking” information into more manageable units

o   Rehearse new information to help encode it

o   Use notecards to review information


Visual-Perceptual Strategies

  • Use of graphic organizers to depict information visually and increase retention of ideas.
  • Note-taking techniques that will present and summarize heard information visually.
  • Exercises to sharpen the ability to attend to visual detail and to express similarities and differences between images.


Processing Speed/ fine motor skills

  • Allow extra time for tests, usually time and a half.
  • Provide extra time for students to complete in-class assignments.
  • Train students in time management techniques to become aware of the time that tasks take.
  • Teach typing skills to enable students to type as fast as they think.
  • Allow students to use the computer for all writing tasks.


Organization of language

  • Students may have excellent ideas but have difficulty organizing their thoughts. Building pre-writing will help them express their ideas more clearly.
  • Review of writing formats (Narrative, Expository, Descriptive, Compare/Contrast, Persuasive) would facilitate and structure written expression.
  • Reinforce the writing process for students in a systematic manner (Brainstorming or clustering, writing, editing). The Inspiration Program is a creative computer tool that helps students brainstorm and organize their ideas before writing.
  • Build students expressive lanuage skills by:

o   Building language categorization skills

o   Building rapid naming skills

o   Teaching them how to organize new information as they learn it to create associations they can use later to recall the information

o   Building flexible thinking skills


Increase reading comprehension

o   The SQ3R approach is recommended as an approach to studying information from text books

o   Teach students to preview reading material prior to class to ensure they are able to follow along during class time

o   Teach students to take notes at the end of each chapter of books they read. This will not only aid comprehension but assist in studying or finding information quickly when writing an essay

o   Pull out keywords and main ideas while reading to help put what students are learning into context


Hopefully Sarah’s academic achievement will improve as she builds strategies to help her overcome her areas of challenge. Building Sarah’s ability, and helping her develop strategies, to understand directions is the first step to helping her start tasks. Teaching Sarah how to break down and organize the steps to complete tasks will allow her to finish the tasks she starts. As Sarah develops these skills, it is hoped that she will be able to complete tasks in a timely manner, thereby increasing her processing speed.



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How DO you teach children with learning challenges?


Effective teaching requires a connection between the teacher and the student. This connection allows the teacher to modify and accelerate instruction as the student grows. Understanding the zone of proximal development helps the teacher understand what a child is capable of learning in any given session. The zone of proximal development is a way to visualize the learning zone.

Zone of Proxmial development

Zone of Proxmial development

Any information above the zone is too difficult for the child to comprehend while anything below the zone she’s already mastered and no longer needs to work on. The tricky part about the zone is it is always moving. On days that the stars are aligned and the child is open and able to learn easily, the child will move swiftly through almost any appropriate material you give. However, if a child has a learning disability, or struggles with emotional regulation, the zone may be different for different subjects or on different days depending on what has happened already before the learning session. It is the role of the teacher to connect with the child at the beginning of the session to determine where the zone is for that day and then moving the child step-by-step though the material to take him to higher levels of comprehension.

Staying in the zone may sound simple, but it is the core of working with any child with a learning challenge. If instructors stay within a child’s zone of proximal development the child will learn. The challenge for the instructor is both staying within the zone and having the appropriate materials so that the child can connect to the new information. Having instructional tools that appropriately address the child’s area of deficits is critical to the learning process. The selection of materials can be a challenge in itself. One reading program may be great for certain kind of student and completely inappropriate for another student. This is where testing and evaluations are helpful. An educational professional can read the testing results and match the child’s areas of weaknesses to programs that develop those specific areas.

Another key component for creating a successful treatment plan is making it fun and motivating for the child. I believe all children want to learn and feel good about their intellectual capability. Our role as teachers, parents and educators is creating the right interventions which stay in the child learning zone, address the specific needs of the child, are fun and guide the child towards his or her potential.

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Language Organization Skills Blend Executive Functioning and Language Skills To Help Us Communicate Clearly


Language serves many purposes. We use language to share our needs, our wants, our feelings and our thoughts. We use language to become apart of our shared community and socially interact with others. Weak language skills can make a person feel isolated and disconnected from those around him. In addition, he may miss out on learning opportunities. Language skills help build strong social connections and friendships as well as allow us to absorb information from teachers and the world around us.

Most people learn language organically as they develop from an infant to a toddler and beyond into adulthood. Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, breaks language into two parts. The first part involves creating a relationship between meaning and sound. What this refers to is that when we hear the sound “d-o-g” we think of a dog, an animal that has four legs and a tail. The average person performs this task quickly and automatically. Most people have learned 50,000 to 100,000 words, which they can quickly and efficiently process from sound to meaning.

The second part of language, according to Pinker, is ability to follow rules and combine words to communicate the thought we have to another person. We learn that “Sarah sat on a hat” has a different meaning than “ A hat sat on Sarah”. We learn that the order of the words is important and that we can get different meanings from the same words.

There is a growing population of students who are struggling with the organizational component of language. Many of these students have acquired the sound to meaning portion of language, but they get overwhelmed when they are required to organize their thoughts to effectively communicate their idea to others. I have begun to call this a “Language Organization Deficit.”

Many of the students who experience this difficulty have a background history of dyslexia, ADHD or language processing difficulty. Some students with Language Organization issues experience word-finding issues, but more commonly they have trouble quickly and clearly conveying information. They may talk around an idea without ever stating what they are trying to communicate. Students with Language organization issues can have trouble keeping up with the pace of the conversation, leading to difficulty in social situations. They also struggle with organizing their ideas to write a paper.

Students with a Language Organization weakness need to build both their language skills and their executive functioning skills.

  • Strengthening the phonological loop with rapid naming exercises can help speed up the word finding component of language.
  • Teaching the Executive Functioning skills of Stop, Think, Plan, Do can allow the student to slow down to organize his ideas.
  • Building a strong vocabulary base, learning antonyms and synonyms, will increase the choices a student has to express his ideas.
  • Learning to breakdown ideas into parts and then organize them can help a student start a task without feeling overwhelmed.
  • Building flexible thinking skills can help a child with language organization issues find new ways of thinking and organizing ideas.

Language and the ability to share thoughts is a basic skill. Those who struggle in this area miss many opportunities for development and friendships. I hope that looking at and considering the organizational component of language can help more students effectively and fluently communicate their thoughts and feelings.







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Building Executive Functioning Skills May Be The Best Intervention For Increasing Processing Speed.


processing speed

Processing speed is becoming a stumbling block for many students. The number of students who are requesting extra time on tests has increased tremendously over the years. What does it mean to have a processing speed dysfunction?  The case studies below are examples of how processing speed issues can vary from student to student.

  • Don is a quiet shy boy who loves skateboarding and hanging out with his family. He is sweet and everyone likes him, however he has no close friends. Don does not initiate conversations or join in conversations with friends at school, which keeps him from being part of the “group”.  Don moves at his own pace and cannot be rushed. Don’s slow processing is global. He is slow moving (except on a skateboard!), slow reading and writing, slow to take in verbal information and to respond verbally to questions.  Don can now read and write at grade level, but his reading and writing fluency are slow. Don continues to have difficulty finding the right words to express his ideas and still would rather sit back and watch a group than join in. Don needs extra time to take in, process and organize his ideas before responding regardless of the type of task presented. 
  • Sara is 8 years year old and quick as quick can be to let you know her opinions. She is highly social and very verbal. Her reading and reading comprehension skills are strong. Sara struggles with slowing down when she is writing. Her handwriting skills are poor and her spelling is weak. She makes careless errors on math problems, which causes her to lose points and get low grades. When asked to write for school Sara quickly becomes upset. Homework is a stressful and prolonged activity. Sara’s fine motor skills are weak and she hates writing. Her weakness in handwriting and organizing her thoughts cause her to avoid writing and she often turns in incomplete work. Sara needs extra time to allow her to stop and think, organize her thoughts and narrow them down in to a manageable amount of information to write down. She also needs extra time to allow her to slowly and carefully write the words on paper.
  • Alex has been diagnosed with a Nonverbal Learning Disability (NLD). One of the main components of NLD is a lack of organizational skills. This means that Alex has a hard time putting all the pieces of information he gathers together to allow him to come to a meaningful conclusion. Breaking down instructions in order to follow them is a challenge, so Alex often just guesses at what he is supposed to do based on pictures or looking at what other are doing. Alex needs extra time to circle and highlight the important information in texts and worksheets so that he can focus on the most important part. He also needs extra time to contemplate the information and come to meaningful conclusion.

Each of these children struggle with processing speed, but the cause of their struggle is different. Weak fine motor skills and/or organizational skills are common factors in processing speed issues. While for many students the fine motor skills are a chief cause of frustration, I am beginning to consider weak executive functioning skills a key factor affecting processing speed.

Young children can work to improve their fine motor skills and therefore increase their processing speed, if that is the main cause of the processing speed deficit. However, for older children and those whose processing speed deficit is cognitively based, building executive functioning skills will be the best intervention for increasing processing speed.

I invite you to take our free executive functioning quiz and find out what skills are strong, and which are weak for you or your child.

Here is a list of Executive Functioning skills:


starting work


stopping off-task behavior


moving from one activity to another

Working Memory

remembering information for immediate use


setting goals and the steps to accomplish them

Organizing Materials

tracking items in work spaces

Time Management

allotting appropriate time for each task


judging the quality and pace of work

Emotional Control

regulating stress and distractibility

For many of the students I see with a processing speed issue, the executive functioning skills of initiate, shift, plan, time management and emotional control are difficult for them. I consider the ability to shift as the most important skill to develop. If a child gets stuck on an idea and can’t let go of it to consider a new idea, nothing can change. If a child gets frustrated and shuts down he can’t find solution to the problem, rather he becomes overwhelmed and defeated. Many students with this profile need to learn new ways to approach tasks so that they can hone in on the most important part. To help them save time and therefore speed up, these students can learn new organization skills that will help them start and finish work in a timely manner. However, they need to be flexible thinkers to do this.

For students with this profile I suggest they build flexible thinking skills first and then organization skills. You can read my blog article on building flexible thinking skills to learn more. I also created The Flexible Thinking Workbook to help students build these very important skills.

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Quick testing taking tip for the “Rusher”


You know the “Rusher”. This is the student who rushes through his or her work without reading the full directions, makes careless errors, only writes down part of the homework assignment and thinks checking work is the worst offense in the world.

Here is a question from a mother whose son is a Rusher.

Q: How can I help my son who has been working very hard and who has brought up his homework and quiz scores but still brings home very poor grades on his tests. We have been working on his executive functioning skills, and they have improved. However, when he takes a test he rushes through and makes many mistakes.

It is wonderful that this student has brought up his weekly grades and has improved his executive functioning skills. This is a huge achievement. There is one more important skill he still needs to learn, namely slowing down while he takes the test.

My recommendation for Rushers is that they be taught to underline the key concepts in the questions on the test. In other words, if the test says: “Name two actions that prove your point about why the main character is innocent”. Your son would underline 2 actions, prove point, is innocent. These are the main points that need to be included in his answer.  Here is another example:

math directions

 I find that many students who rush through tests often don’t read the questions carefully. Teaching your son to slow down and read the question, underline the key concepts, and then make sure that those key concepts are included in his answer may help improve his test performance. In the example above, many Rushers would miss the direction asking them to write how many zeros are in the answer. Often times it is the little things that they miss that cause the Rusher to give incomplete answers and lose points on a test. These points add up and suddenly they have a low score even though they knew the material.

You can check out Study Skills Made Easy by L. Davis, M.Ed. and S. Sirotowitz, M.Ed. as well as, The Executive Functioning Workbook by K. Fried, PsyD. and M. Mullin, Ph.D. for more in depth study strategies

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Do visual learners have more difficulty with language organization than verbal learners?

imaging girl

Visual-spatial learners think in images. Verbal learners think primarily in words. Visual learners see the whole picture all at once allowing them to see things from many perspectives. Verbal learners learn step by step and have a tendency towards analytical thinking. These two types of learning may also impact a child’s organization of language. 

What do I mean by language organization? I am referring to the executive functioning skill of organizing your thoughts, attaching those thoughts to words and sharing those words with others so that they can understand your idea. Therefore when I am talking about language organization I am referring to the relationship between thought and language. 

What is the relationship between language and thought? Aristotle taught that speech symbolized thought. Chomsky believed that the language environment is a key component to language development. Piaget and Vygotsky believed that a complex interaction exists between the child and the environment that is influenced by the child’s social and cognitive development. They believed that as children develop language they are building a symbol system that helps them understand the world. However, while Piaget believed that cognitive development leads to language development, Vygotsky believed language drives the development of thought.

How do these theories of language development impact students who are either visual or verbal learners? Do verbal and visual learners actually have different thought processes? If you think in pictures rather than thinking in words, are your thoughts different? Most importantly, how do these two learning styles affect a child’s ability to express himself both verbally and on written assignments?

Our educational system has embraced a verbal communication curriculum. Most teachers give verbal directions, assign books that are written in text (words) and they require most assessments be completed in written text (words). Take a minute to consider this. If you think in words, then both your input of information from the teacher and books, along with your output (what you write down) are all in your native processing mode (verbal).  If, however, your learning style is visual, when the teacher is talking or you are reading, you must translate those verbal words into pictures; and in order to write an essay you must translate your visual images into words and sequence them to communicate your ideas.

See the chart below to get a better understanding of how visual and verbal (auditory sequential) learners differ.


 Visual-Spatial Learner Chart

Copyright held by Linda Kreger Silverman, August, 1999. From Upside-Down Brilliance: The Visual-Spatial Learner. Denver: DeLeon Publishing. This chart may be reproduced.

The Auditory-Sequential Learner
   The Visual-Spatial Learner
·      Thinks primarily in words
·      Thinks primarily in images
·      Has auditory strengths
·      Has visual strengths
·      Relates well to time
·      Relates well to space
·      Is a step-by-step learner
·      Is a whole-part learner
·      Learns by trial and error
·      Learns concepts all at once
·      Progresses sequentially from easy to difficult material
·      Learns complex concepts easily; Struggles with easy skills
·      Is an analytical thinker
·      Is a good synthesizer
·      Attends well to details
·      Sees the big picture; may miss details
·      Follows oral directions well
·      Reads maps well
·      Does well at arithmetic
·      Is better at math reasoning than computation
·      Learns phonics easily
·      Learns whole words easily
·      Can sound out spelling words
·      Must visualize words to spell them
·      Can write quickly and neatly
·      Much better at keyboarding than handwriting
·      Is well organized
·      Creates unique methods of organization
·      Can show steps of work easily
·      Arrives at correct solutions intuitively
·      Excels at rote memorization
·      Learns best by seeing relationships
·      Has good auditory short-term memory
·      Has good long-term visual memory
·      May need some repetition to reinforce learning
·      Learns concepts permanently; does not learn by drill and repetition
·      Learns well from instructions
·      Develops own methods of problem solving
·      Learns in spite of emotional reactions
·      Is very sensitive to teachers’ attitudes
·      Is comfortable with one right answer
·      Generates unusual solutions to problems
·      Develops fairly evenly
·      Develops quite asynchronously (unevenly)
·      Usually maintains high grades
·      May have very uneven grades
·      Enjoys algebra and chemistry
·      Enjoys geometry and physics
·      Masters other languages in classes
·      Masters other languages through immersion
·      Is academically talented
·      Is creatively, technologically, mechanically, emotionally or spiritually gifted
·      Is an early bloomer
·      Is a late bloomer

Clearly, verbal learners have an easier time in an educational environment built on verbal communication. The issue of language organization, as I’m referring to it, involves the executive functioning skills of organizing and sequencing thoughts. In the chart above, the auditory learner’s skill set assumes that there are no other learning deficits, especially any deficits with executive functioning skills. There are verbal learners who experience difficulty with organization, and therefore may have difficulty with organizing complex verbal language.

The students who are highly visual-spatial learners will need exceptional executive functioning skills to enable them to break down and sequence their ideas in a timely manner. The visual-spatial learner has to both translate pictures to words and sequence words into meaningful sentences, paragraphs and essays.

There is a relationship between visual learners and learning differences such as dyslexia, nonverbal learning disability, attention issues and language processing disorders. Looking at the chart above, you can see how language-based assessments will be more challenging for a visual learner than a verbal learner.


When creating strategies for visual learners it is important for parents and teachers to understand that students with a visual-spatial learning style may take longer than other students to process new verbal information. When you consider the fact that they are translating words to images when taking in new information and translating images to words to share their ideas, it becomes easier to understand why the students need extra time in the classroom. In addition to extra time, teachers can consider ways in which they can modify or enhance their lessons with visual information. When teachers present visual information to the classroom the visual learners will quickly absorb it, while the verbal learners will be busy translating those images into words. Any form of visual support will be helpful to the visual learner. Here are some additional ideas a teacher can incorporate to help students learn better in the classroom.

  •  Before a lecture, provide students with a general outline of the material to be covered.
  •  Write directions with more than two steps on the board.
  • Use flip boards, photos, diagrams, laminated pictures, power point presentations, charts, maps, movies, filmstrips, timelines, mnemonics.
  • Provide access to computer programs that come with your textbook to provide greater visual exposure and practice.
  • Use the computer in the classroom to construct mind maps or webbing of the material.
  • Use concepts maps with key points, boxes, circles, and arrows showing the connections of information. Webbing provides the connections that visual learners must have.
  •  When doing questions and answers in the classroom, allow adequate wait time before calling on students.


It is important to remember that we need diversity in our thinking styles. Each of us has our own strengths and weaknesses that helped create who we are as human beings. As students grow and develop it is important for them to understand themselves, how their brain works and how valuable their type of thinking is.

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