Executive Function: What’s That? EF Series Pt. 1

Executive function skills are crucial building blocks for the early development of both cognitive and social capacities.

Children need to develop these skills, too, in order to meet the many challenges they will faces on the road to becoming productive, contributing members of their communities.

Harvard Working Paper- Building the Brain’s Air Traffic Control System


It is a gray, gloomy day in Wyoming and I can’t think of a better day to kick off a blog series on a topic I have become deeply involved with – executive function. What is executive function? And why the heck should I care?

Executive function is perhaps the most ignored, least addressed, incredibly important area of success- academic, personal, life or otherwise.  It is our air traffic control center that helps us regulate, plan, modulate, organize and in very simplified terms: SUCCEED in school and in life.

The purpose of the next series of posts on this blog is to explore executive function and the implication that executive function has on students, academic achievement and success in life.  This first post is a general overview of executive function complied from my understanding and research that I have been conducting as part of my ongoing professional learning.

What is Executive Function?
Executive function is a larger term that describes the cognitive processes that we require to plan, organize, think flexibly and otherwise successfully navigate the cognitive tasks we  do every single day.  I like the analogy that executive function is like the air traffic control of your brain. Executive function is what makes it possible for us

Unlike many of the other processes that we are born knowing how to do, executive function skills are learned skills.

To better understand what executive function is, it helps to break this large, complex collection of cognitive tasks into smaller parts. There are multiple different ways to think about and group the components of executive function.  Understood.org has an excellent article that breaks the discrete part of executive function into eight parts: Impulse Control, Emotional Control, Flexible Thinking, Working Memory, Self-Monitoring, Planning and Prioritizing, Task Initiation and Organization.  Executive function

Impulse Control

Emotional Control

Flexible Thinking

Working Memory


Planning and Prioritizing

Task Initiation


Each of these areas has direct connections to what we ask students to do in school.  Over the past few years, I have been looking at the impact of weak executive function skills have on my students and what specifically I can do to help support my students who have significant deficits in many of these areas.

My next posts will be looking more in depth at each of these domains.  More specifically, I want to explore how each of these areas relates to school, what students who struggle in each area typically ‘look’ like and what strategies both teachers and families can use to support children who struggle with executive functioning deficits.

This blog series is my attempt to learn more about EF and how I can improve my classroom instruction and IEPs by better addressing executive functioning.  I have been collecting resources, researching and working closely with a colleague who has an equally high interest in EF in order to broaden my understanding in this area but I absolutely welcome comments, resources and any additional information that you, my readers, might be able to share!  I am also very excited to read Dr. Nancy Sulla’s new book Executive Function as the Missing Link to Student Achievement which will be coming out in June.  She has some excellent resources including this video which gives a great brief overview of executive function skills.

I’m looking forward to writing this series as I expand my knowledge on this crucial, overlooked topic.

Happy MLK Day!




Welcome to My Alphabet Soup Life! For quite awhile now, I’ve been attempting to get a blog off the ground and running.  I always feel like I have everything and nothing to say – and I’m not sure that what I have to share will be valuable or valued.   But, at the end of the day, I have a lot on my mind and I need a place to share my thoughts, reflect on my teaching and evaluate my practices.  Special education is, after all, a very challenging field.  I think that’s what I like most about it – no two days are ever the same!

Why Alphabet Soup?

If you know a special education teacher, work with one, live with one or have ever met one, you are aware that SpEd Teachers are capable of having entire conversations using just the acronyms that special education is so overly fond of creating.

You know how these conversations go! “I need a FBA for a BIP needed for an IEP in order to be in compliance with IDEIA and FAPE! Maybe we should use some CBMs to determine if the student is SLD and needs AT.”

See?  Alphabet Soup.

The Challenge of Special Education

I never wanted to be a teacher.  Growing up, my parents were teachers and all of their friends were teachers.  They all frequently told me that I was going to be a teacher – and as an obstinate teenager, I assured them there was no way I wanted to join the profession! Fast forward through a multitude of life experiences, traveling the world, and a couple stints as a nanny and I found myself wondering “what next”?

What was next turned out to be enrolling in a masters program in special education.  It just sort of all fell together by accident!  Although I had had some experience as a special education paraeducator years before, I don’t really know if I knew what I had just signed up for!  But it was the right choice for me and I instantly knew I had made the right decision (yes, mom and dad were right, I was going to be a teacher!).

My first teaching job was at a now closed high school in Thornton, Colorado.  I instantly fell in love with the job.  I absolutely loved the challenge!  The school I worked at was significantly impacted with many high risk students and a very high drop out rate.   But watching my students walk across the stage to get a diploma was worth all of the hard work and challenges they threw my way.

Then the district restructured and I ended up moving to a K-12 school teaching the elementary special education students.  This again was a challenge that kept me on my toes!  Switching from secondary to elementary made me realize just how much I didn’t know as a teacher and how much more I still needed to learn.

Four years ago, I moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming and started a new journey as a special education teacher at Anderson Elementary.  Wyoming brought a new set of challenges and ample opportunities to grow professionally.

Knowing What You Don’t Know

As a special education teacher, we are constantly being thrown curve balls – what works for one student, doesn’t work for another.  It is always a challenge and I am constantly reinventing and refining my practice.

When you first start teaching (ok let’s be very honest, for the first five years or so), you are just getting your feet under you.  Managing the day to day aspects of teaching, paperwork, meetings and other unexpected challenges seems more like a juggling act in a circus than a teaching job.

Now, 11 years later, I finally feel like I have most of my job under control – but don’t get me wrong, there’s still SO much more to learn! I think good teachers always keep learning, growing and reflecting.  There’s still so many ways I can grow and improve!

Boards and More

Right now my big challenge is finishing up my National Board Certification.  This process is certainly stretching me professionally and making me think very critically about my practices and teaching. Two more components to go!

I was also recently appointed to the state panel for students with disabilities.  I’m excited to participate on this board and be an advocate for my students and students across the state. I hope to include some of this experiences in my blog.

Also, I’ve been dreaming of a doctorate…but it’s just an idea at the moment!  I don’t think I will ever stop learning.

Reflecting on the Journey

Reflecting is such an important part of becoming a better teacher.  I want to formalize my reflection process, or at least make them more meaningful and share my learning with others.  I am hoping this blog will give me a place to do this – and maybe one day other will help me grow by providing me with their feedback!

So this is my blog – where I will be doing my best to make sense of the alphabet soup, reflect and improve on my teaching and professional practices, and be a better advocate for my students, families and teams that I work with on a daily basis.   I am looking forward to creating a library of all of the resources I find valuable in one place so I can more effectively share them with my colleagues and parents.

Welcome to my blog!