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What is executive functioning?

Executive functions are skills performed by our brain that help us to control and manage our thoughts and actions. Having the skills to organise and plan, shift attention, be flexible with thinking and self-regulate can all have an impact on how a young person copes with daily tasks. Evidence shows that individuals on the autism spectrum may have difficulties with some or all areas of executive functioning.

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Executive Functioning strategies

Time Management

  • Use a classroom schedule to outline the day and prepare students for what’s coming next
  • Use an activity schedule to break down a block of time into smaller chunks showing the order of activities
  • Use a calendar to determine when each smaller assignment will need to be finished, and place the smaller benchmark goals on the calendar
  • Break down big projects into smaller pieces with more deadlines

Meta-cognition – Thinking about our own thinking

  • Use meta-cognitive language to articulate the challenge eg “I see that you are missing a pencil. You will need a pencil to complete the assignment. Where could you find one in the classroom?”
  • Display steps or questions that students could ask themselves in the classroom to promote independence with a skill
  • Have students repeat directions to a partner and then have a volunteer repeat the direction for the whole class

Working Memory

  • Break tasks down into smaller, more manageable steps so that the child can follow multi-step instructions
  • Focus on one task at a time
  • Tease out the micro-tasks to help the child break the assignment down into manageable parts
  • Generate and write down major ideas
  • Use memory games or apps or use memory-based team-building games that require students to remember something as part of a classroom activity


  • Provide checklists to be able to find important items on a regular basis
  • Use a calendar to mark off important events
  • Provide folders and a basket of supplies to keep the student’s desk organised
  • Help the student create a daily to-do list to track assignments
  • Provide an extra set of books for the student to keep at home

Emotional Regulation

  • Use motor movement tasks that require a child to pause, wait and then respond may teach self-control skills
  • Provide student with a “Wait 5” strategy–counting to five before verbally responding to an input in the classroom, and a “Wait 3” in personal conversations to think before speaking in pairs or groups
  • Help students see the relationship between thoughts and feelings

Flexible Thinking

  • Create weekly journal prompts that require students to practice seeing things from multiple perspectives

Task Initation

  • Create daily prompts of various tasks to complete
  • Have students brainstorm different “starting points” for tasks


  • Provide visual prompts at different times of an activity to support the child to complete the task
  • Provide opportunities for a child to revisit the task as required to encourage engagement
  • Check in frequently to make sure the student understands the work


  • Provide a rubric that describes the elements of a successful assignment
  • Give notice (when possible) about schedule changes
  • Highlight key words and ideas on worksheets


  • Provide the child with a 'First – Then' card
  • Use a visual prompt to move the child from a preferred to a non-preferred activity
  • Provide a child with headphones when the classroom is noisy
  • Provide coloured strips to place under sentences or equations when reading

Harvard University. Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence. Download Report

Morin, A. Classroom Accommodations for Executive Functioning Issues (2020). Web Link

Sharples, J. Executive Functioning: Controlling the Mind. Web Link Executive Functioning Strategies for your Child. Web Link

Zelazo, P.D., Blair, C.B., and Willoughby, M.T. (2016). Executive Function: Implications for Education (NCER 2017-2000) Washington, DC: National Center for Education Research, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Download Report

Branstetter, R. (2016) The Conscious Parent's Guide to Executive Functioning Disorder: A Mindful Approach for Helping Your Child Focus and Learn. San Francisco: Adams Media

Cantin,R.H., Mann, T.D. & Hund,A.M. (2012). Executive Functioning Predicts School Readiness and Success: Implications for Assessment and Intervention. Communiqué, 40 (4), 1 – 2.

Centre of the Developing Child at Harvard University. (2011). Building the brain’s “Air traffic control system”: How early experiences shape the development of executive function. Working Paper No 11. Retrieved from

Corbett, B.A., Constantine, L.J., Hendren, R., Rocke, D. & Ozonoff, S. (2009). Examining executive functioning in children with autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and typical development. Psychiatry Research, 166 (2 – 3), 210 – 222.

Dawson, P., & Guare, R. (2010). Executive skills in children and adolescents: A practical guide to assessment and intervention. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Geurts, H.M. Verte´, S., Oosterlaan, J. Roeyers, H. & Sergeant, J.A. (2004). How specific are executive functioning deficits in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism? Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 45(4), 836–854.

Happe, F., Booth, R., Charlton, R. & Hughes, C. (2006). Executive function deficits in autism spectrum disorders and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: Examining profiles across domains and ages. Brain and Cognition, 61(1), 25-39.

Jackson, L. (2002). Freaks, Geeks & Asperger Syndrome. A User Guide to Adolescence. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Liss, M., Fein, D., Allen, D., Dunn, M., Feinstein, C., Morris, R., Waterhouse, L., & Rapin, I. (2001). Executive functioning in high-functioning children with autism.Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 42(2), 261–270.

Moss, H. (2010). Middle School: The Stuff Nobody Tells You About. Kansas: Autism Asperger Publishing Co.

White, S.J, Burgess, P.W. & Hill, E.L. (2009). Impairments on ‘‘Open-Ended’’ Executive Function Tests in Autism. Autism Research, 2,138-147.

Zelazo, P. D., Blair, C. B., & Willoughby, M. T. (2016). Executive Function: Implications for Education. NCER 2017-2000. National Center for Education Research.

Ask An Autistic #25 - Video

What Is Executive Functioning?

Created by Amythest Schaber - November 14, 2015

YouTube Channel: Web Link