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School, Executive Functions, and Technology

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Most educators would agree that a purpose of education is to assist learners in developing life skills which will translate to their lives outside of the school setting.  These include goal setting, organizational skills, time management, and strategies to learn new things.  They are precursors to learning, skills or ability sets that are important for students to learn any content area knowledge.  These are often discussed in the context of executive functions:

In their book, “Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents,” Peg Dawson, EdD and Richard Guare, PhD state “These [executive function] skills help us create a picture or goal, a path to that goal, and the resources we need along the way”(p 2).  They identify 10 types of executive function skills that work together; namely: Sustaining attention, shifting attention, inhibiting impulses, initiating activity, planning and organization, organization of materials, time management, working memory and emotional control

Often, though, in schools the following tends to occur surrounding executive functions:

  1. There is an assumption that students possess these skills and abilities.
  2. Students are punished if they fail to practice and use the skills.

I was reminded of these assumptions when working with a group of high-risk youth who had entered the legal system for minor criminal offenses.  The motto of the group was “it is okay to have problems, everybody does, but you have to be willing to deal with it.”  To “deal with it”, group huddle-ups were called when problems arose.  These group circles were designed to assist the youth in understanding their behavior and learning more appropriate responses.  A 13 year old boy, who had more than his fair share of group circles called because of his misbehavior, stated emphatically and in exasperation during one of these huddle-ups, “I have been acting this way for 13 years.  I am working on changing. I cannot change overnight.” Yet in many school settings, young people are expected to “behave” in ways that are deemed appropriate by the “system” (teachers, administrators, support staff) even though these behaviors may be very foreign to the young person, who may have never been taught these skills.  “Stay seated”, “be organized”, “speak only when spoken to”, “pay attention to the teacher”, “raise your hand to speak” may be foreign, uncomfortable, and even punishing to some students . . . and they are often enforced by external, controlling measures.

So often in education we focus our energies on content and pedagogy, assuming that students naturally develop the skills to become active and self-directed learners. But anyone who has spent time in the classroom knows this assumption rarely holds. There is growing evidence about the importance of executive skills for self-regulated learning, impulsivity control, and resiliency in the face of challenges.

Most young people, themselves, would note there are skills that could assist them in being more successful in both school and out of school settings.   Most would agree that organization skills, goals setting, and time management are relevant to other areas of their lives.

Executive functions and self-regulating skills development should be part of the school curriculum regardless of the age and demographics of the student body.  Using and teaching these skills often have the advantage of becoming intrinsically motivated and self-directed as well as often making sense to students as something that has meaning and relevancy.

Technology to Build and Develop Executive Function-related Skills (subtitle: and yet another reason to for technology integration)

Technology has great potential to manage and build executive function skills and has the added advantage of being natural and motivating for today’s students. Note taking and recording systems can apply to any setting or environment.  Technologies exist that help facilitate the management of information and resources, together with calendar & file organization; and others offer support for overall organization with To-Dos and reminder alerts. Technology tools for mind-mapping with strong visual supports help with thought organization and naturally cater directly to some students. (

Online To-Do lists/Task Management

There are a number of free online to-do list and task management applications available, most with similar features. Some popular features include:

  • Twitter, Google Calendar, email, text message, iPad /tablet or a smart phones to add a task to your to-do list 
Receive task reminders via IM, text message, or email
  • Tasks on a map and get directions
  • asks in list form or visually (as a tag cloud)
. Share lists with friends and collaborate on projects
  • Other Task Management Tools include Remember the Milk and Evernote

Managing Time

  • Checklists and visual calendars / timelines to provide visual indicators of tasks and progress toward each goal.
  • Smartphones can help organize these checklists and calendars, as can various software programs.

Productivity and Notetaking Tools

Managing long term, project-based, or research tasks is a daunting task for anyone.  There are a number of free online tools and apps that can assist students with the management of these projects.

Diigo:  One of a variety of social bookmarking and tagging websites. In addition to bookmarking websites and resources of interest, users can: 

  • Highlight website text
  • Add sticky notes to websites
  • Access tags, sticky notes and annotations from any computer when they log in to their Diigo account
  • Tag resources with labels to make them easier to find again (
  • Organize bookmarks in list form or visually (using a tag cloud)
  • Create topic-based lists of websites and resources
• Share resources with friends

EverNote: This application combines traditional notetaking, to-do lists, and task management with virtual sticky notes, photos, audio recordings and mobile applications to allow users to remember and record important information and access it anytime.

  • Create notes by clipping text and images from a web page
  • Create sticky notes using your computer or mobile phone
  • Use a cell phone to read to-do lists
  • Take snapshots using cell phone or web cam; any text (business cards, labels, notes on the whiteboard in class, etc.) will be recognized by the software
  • Search your notes to find exact text, whether text is part of a handwritten note, snapshot or website
• Email notes to yourself
  • Scan documents into your notes (receipts, lists, etc.)
  • Record audio notes (

Zotero:  Open source citation manager, with syncing, collaboration, and an easy way to collect references (browse to a page with citation information and click a button). Uses plugins for Firefox, Open Office, and Microsoft Word. Generates inline citations and bibliographies in any style with the click of a button.

Organizing Ideas

Mind mapping is a superior tool for not only filling in for our executive function deficits but also for enhancing our extraordinary abilities—such as creativity, out-of-the-box thinking,

[Mindmapping] can help students who have difficulty structuring their thinking to create a paper outline and then turn it into a thoughtful and well-organized piece of work. The student can “throw” ideas onto the screen, creating a mind-map without particular order, linking connected ideas with arrows, and adding details as they come to mind. Then, with one click, this graphical web of ideas can be turned into an outline and exported to Word for further elaboration. Various templates exist for different types of writing and the computer interface makes what is often an overwhelming task much more appealing.

Video Games and Executive Functions

As a final note to this post, video games are proving to be useful in assisting young people in developing executive function related skills and abilities:

Children with executive functioning difficulties are often highly engaged by video games and other digital media, and tend to display less of the problems they experience in “real life” while involved with these technologies. More importantly, the deliberate use of video games and other digital media offers many ways to improve and exercise the executive functions that may be impaired in such a child. The following chart demonstrates how and why these technologies can be powerful tools for helping kids with executive functioning difficulties.


More Resources

The resources shared above are just provided as suggestions.  There are a lot more technologies to support executive functions.  See some of the following articles for more ideas:

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

September 1, 2013 at 3:00 pm

One Response

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  1. Excellent article – thank you for sharing the resources you have tracked down.

    Alpha Insight Development

    November 10, 2013 at 12:28 pm

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