Executive Function and Focus

Sustaining focus (and effort) for long enough to complete a task, and shifting focus to a new task when appropriate are vital executive skills. Students who have difficulty sustaining and shifting focus benefit from being taught how to (and practicing) analyzing and breaking a task into sub-tasks or steps to follow.

First, students need to be introduced to models of the completed task so they know how to approach the steps of the process and have an example of what it should look like when it is complete. Next, they need to be given clear oral and written directions and expectations for the task. Finally, they need to be taught methods for sustaining their focus until the task is complete, and for shifting to the next task.

Though many students figure out their own approaches to focusing and successful task completion, students with learning disabilities/differences or ADHD need explicit strategy instruction and practice in order to develop this skill. These students commonly have very weak internal language skills—that is, the self-talking skills that people use to sustain their efforts and check that they are on track to meeting their goal.

Russell A. Barkley, author of a new book on Executive Function for clinicians, writes:

The internal forms of information generated by the executive system, if they have been generated at all, appear to be extraordinarily weak in their ability to control and sustain the behavior of those with EF deficits…The solution to this problem is not to nag those with EF difficulties to simply try harder or to remember what they are supposed to be working on or toward. It is instead to take charge of that immediate context and fill it with forms of physical cues comparable to their internal counterparts that are proving so ineffective (Barkley, R. A. (2013, November 14). The important role of executive functioning and self-regulation in ADHD).

As educators, we must create ways to make expected internal language visible and interactive for our students.

This resource offers ways to structure students’ purposes for reading to help them sustain focus, and strategies to make internal language visible to foster successful completion of the reading task.

For the full text of the Landmark Teaching Principles™, including “Micro-Unit and Structure Tasks,” click here.

Strategies to Download:

Executive Function and Focus: Reading with a Purpose

These steps and questions direct students to determine a purpose before they begin reading so they can sustain their focus.


Executive Function and Focus: Making Internal Language Visible

These techniques help students maintain focus while working to complete a task successfully.


Let us know what you think! Email to share your thoughts and strategies.

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