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How to Build Executive Functioning Skills in Special Ed Students

Most students with special needs require support in developing executive functioning skills. These skills are essential for success in school and life, but they can be challenging to build. 

Building Executive Functioning Skills
Building Executive Functioning Skills

Fortunately, there are a few things that teachers can do to help their students develop these skills. We will explore some of the best ways to help students with special needs build executive functioning skills.


The Importance of Executive Functioning Skills

Executive functioning skills are the mental processes associated with executive functions, including planning, organizing, strategizing, paying attention to detail, being able to start and finish tasks, time management, and problem-solving. 

In other words, executive functioning skills are the mental tools we use daily to stay organized and on top of our responsibilities. With executive functioning skills, it can be easier to stay on task and get things done in a timely matter. That is why executive functioning skills are so critical; they allow us to set goals and work towards them. Developing strong executive functioning skills gives us a fantastic sense of control over our lives!

Examples of Activities That Help Build Executive Functioning Skills

Working on executive functioning skills doesn’t have to be dull! Various activities can help build these essential abilities, like working on puzzles or task sets for fun, playing games with a timer, breaking up tasks into smaller chunks to stay organized and make them easier to complete, and keeping track of your schedule. 

Everyday activities like cooking, laundry, grocery shopping, balancing a checkbook, and doing arts or crafts provide opportunities to practice planning and managing time. Improving executive functioning skills helps us in our everyday lives – so why not make the process enjoyable?

Creating a Positive Learning Environment as Students Work on Executive Functioning

A positive learning environment that supports students with special needs is essential in helping them develop executive functioning skills. Creating such an atmosphere begins with the teacher taking an individualized approach, assessing each student’s specific difficulty, and adapting instruction accordingly. 

Structured lessons with clearly stated objectives set realistic expectations for students. To maximize learning potential, teachers can also implement differentiated instruction and provide small-group and one-on-one instruction opportunities to ensure personalized support. 

Additionally, periodic breaks throughout the day help maintain focus by providing a sense of control and a chance to energize physically, emotionally, and mentally. Finally, providing emotional and social support, so students feel connected and involved encourages engagement that helps cultivate sustained success.

Resources for Building Executive Functioning Skills

As an educator, developing executive functioning skills in students can be a daunting task — especially when those students are living with special needs. There are numerous resources available to help you throughout this process, so don’t feel intimidated! 

Examples of great sources include:

All three provide comprehensive educational materials about topics such as organized time management, studying effectively, and staying focused during activities. 

Additionally, the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities has published multiple publications specifically created to assist teachers in supporting executive functioning skills in students with disabilities. 


There are many ways that parents and educators can support students with executive functioning skills at home and school. By definition, these skills are higher-level cognitive processes that help us manage everyday tasks, such as planning and organization, time management, paying attention, regulating emotions, and flexible thinking. They are important for academic success, social functioning, and independent living. Parents and teachers can provide accommodations and modifications to facilitate learning and skill development. With knowledge and understanding of how to support students with executive functioning difficulties, we can provide the tools they need to succeed in school and life.

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I'm a special education teacher, presenter, curriculum writer, and educational blogger behind Mrs. D's Corner.
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