Having Fun with Executive Function

Would you rather ask a classroom of students to clean out their desks or walk across a bed of hot coals? You may be pondering the right choice, but why? When we think of our students’ organization, many of us may shudder. Not only are kids messy, but they hate being told to clean! Organization, however, is key to being a successful adult, making it essential to help students view executive function in a positive light.

You can’t blame students for finding executive function boring. The only time that many students hear about organizing, time management, or other areas of executive function is when an adult tells them that they are bad at it. Of course, we would never put it quite like that, but when we tell students to clean up their mess in a tone of disgust or remind them to write down their homework for the millionth time, that is the message we send.

What’s needed is an approach to teaching executive function strategies that bypasses this perceived criticism. If we can engage students to think positively about executive function, they will be more open to understanding how executive function will make their lives easier, and then we can teach them strategies that will help them overcome common academic challenges.

In SMARTS, we like to start our lessons with an activator that does exactly this. To us, an effective activator is fun, non-threatening, and connected.


Who doesn’t like to have fun? If we start a lesson on organization by playing a game, students are sure to be more engaged. However, the quote marks around the word ‘fun’ are intentional. Don’t select an activity solely based on how fun it is. Instead, choose an activity that is engaging and connected to the area of executive function you want your students to learn. Help them connect the dots so that they recognize how a strategy could make their lives easier.


Remember to teach strategies in a way that does not seem overly critical. Students are sensitive to their perceived failures. If you’re teaching them about an area in which they have struggled, such as organizing or test prep, they may become closed off. Help them remain open by using an activator that is consequence free. Students won’t lose points or self-esteem no matter how they approach the task. If your activator is explicitly academic, such as error analysis on a research paper, try having students analyze the work of a hypothetical student before they analyze themselves.


Make sure that your ‘fun’ and non-threatening activator has an clear connection to your students’ lives. Highlight the point of the executive function strategy you’re teaching by showing students how it can make a difference in their day-to-day life, in school or beyond. Ask them to apply what they’ve learned to their own work or have them reflect on similarities and differences between the activator and their lives.

If you follow these three steps, you can reframe executive function strategy instruction. Instead of a sense of boredom or dread, your students will be excited for the next strategy and eager to tell you how they used it on their own. Don’t believe me? Join us at this year’s Learning Differences Conference for our session titled, “Promoting Executive Function Across the Grades: Fun, Form, and Content.” We’re going to have a lot of ‘fun.’

  • Michel Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director