Executive Functioning Tips for Students on the Spectrum

Many students who are working at home are sharing the struggle of trying to get work done and stay focused during this pandemic. 

Executive functioning skills include time management, planning and prioritizing our tasks, organization and getting started on our work. 

For students who are looking to improve skills in these areas, here are some helpful strategies to try. 

The first strategy is use a planner. We often use schedules and planners with our clients at Integrated Autism Consulting. The reason planners are so useful is because we are looking forward into the next week to determine how we can use our time to complete our tasks. The planner is most effective, when we plan out our work periods but also time for breaks and free time to let ourselves rest! Remember to plan first and execute second.

The next strategy is to take breaks. There is compelling research that tells us when we use up too many cognitive resources or “brain juice”, we will have impaired decision-making. This is why we need to take time for breaks throughout our day. Exercise in the form of outdoor walks is highly encouraged to get fresh air, clear our minds and reduce stress. 

Experts also encourage us to let our mind wander, and take time to “un-focus” throughout the day, during our break times. This strategy allows us to be more focused when the time comes to work through complex tasks. 

Another strategy is use graphic organizers. Those who are visual thinkers, particularly benefit from graphic organizers. Using these tools allow us to organize our thinking, put our thoughts into categories and assists our working memory. Working memory is a skill that involves reviewing information, retrieving it and applying it to complete a task. Graphic organizers can be used for many tasks including note-taking, test review or project planning. 

The next strategy is to self-reflect. This is a very important area for students who feel stuck with certain jobs or work tasks. Take time to reflect, why might you be feeling stressed today? Did you get enough sleep? Have you eaten a good meal? Have you exercised lately? Are you taking enough breaks throughout your day? What time of day are you most effective in your work (morning or afternoon)? Are you working on your most difficult tasks at that time or does your schedule need to change? Self-reflection can be done in the form of journaling or discussions with others, or both. This is an important strategy to use continuously throughout our days to evaluate what we need personally, to be focused in our work when the time comes. 

The final strategy is create tech breaks or no-screen time. If we are constantly sitting at a computer, or taking our breaks in front of the TV, we are not allowing our brains to rest and restore themselves. Tech Breaks or No-Screen Time can be very beneficial and will encourage us to try other activities that will improve our thinking and our work output. Taking a break in the form of a walk or healthy habit, like calling a loved one, can significantly improve our moods and make us feel better throughout our days.

With practice and support, teens and young adults can become more effective at executive functioning skills. Over time, we can learn new habits that improve our work flow and reduce stress over school work. 

Article By Erin Lalande (OCT) EF Skills Instructor and Coach 

Click link below to download a copy of this article.


Book by: Joyce Cooper-Kahn and Margaret Foster, Boosting Executive Skills in the Classroom: A Practical Guide for Educators

Podcast: LifeKit NPR, 6 Ways to Improve Your Focus. Too Much Focusing is Draining. Here’s a Better StrategyLifeKit https://www.npr.org/2021/03/21/979183329/too-much-focusing-is-draining-heres-a-better-strategy

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