The 3 Rules of Executive Function Strategy Instruction

Executive function is a hot topic in education these days. Researchers have identified crucial executive function processes that are associated with greater success in school and in life (e.g., goal setting, flexible thinking, organizing, prioritizing, accessing working memory, and self-checking). Now that we’ve established that executive function is important, what can we do to help students who have executive function deficits?

There are a range of books and curricula (like SMARTS!) you can use to help students learn strategies for accessing executive function processes. You may find that your day-to-day practices already integrate approaches for engaging executive function. As you map out your approach to executive function, keep these three fundamental facts in mind.

  1. Context matters — Executive function processes stem from the prefrontal cortex of the brain; therefore, they are rooted in our biology. This accounts for the reason why some students are better at tasks requiring executive function than others. However, our brain is also a product of our environment. The day-to-day activities our students engage in can help or hinder the development of executive function.
  2. Executive function is developmental — Effective executive function strategies are the foundation for the development of increasingly complex skills students will need as adults. Put simply, executive function is key to a lifetime of success. Make this clear to your students. Show them your planner. Describe how breaking down tasks or organizing materials will help them when they are older.
  3. Repeated practice is key — Executive function strategies that are taught in isolation, or are taught once and never revisited, will not take root. Look for ways to circle back to the strategies you teach. Integrate strategies into homework and tests. Create strategy boards or other visual reminders. Use discussion questions to help students reflect on strategy use. And, most importantly, model how you use strategies to cope with the challenges you face.


These three tenets are at the heart of our SMARTS Executive Function program and should be included in any approach to executive function strategy instruction. Because executive function is such a fundamental and developmental process, we are all executive function teachers. Contemplate ways to adopt these three rules into your teaching, and you will be helping your students develop the skills they need to succeed for a lifetime.

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director