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Executive Function Strategies: Brainy Ideas for College Students

January 04, 2018

Understanding Executive Functioning Skills

By: Sarah McCarren RN, MSN, CPNP
Executive Skills Coach/ Health Instructor at Benchmark School

"Just try harder" is not an effective chant to college students who are not meeting their potential. Instead of frustrating banter, why not give them strategies and an understanding of how to maximize their amazing brain! 

Executive function skills are high-order processes that are completed within the pre-frontal cortex of the brain. These skills are what everyone uses to understand, organize and act on information. Having these abilities are more predictive of successful completion of college than I.Q.; but the fact that the pre-frontal cortex does not reach maturity until the age of 25 creates a challenge for many college students.

What are the 8 Categories of Executive Functioning?

  1. Working Memory: The ability to temporarily retain the relevant information necessary to process a task. An example would be following multi-step directions.
  2. Flexible Thinking: The ability to adapt to changes, accept feedback, and shift activities.
  3. Impulse Control: The ability to stop a behavior and think before acting or speaking.
  4. Emotional Control: The ability to identify and regulate emotions and the ability to let-go of intensely negative emotions.
  5. Self-Monitoring: The ability to evaluate and manage in social and educational settings. This includes recognizing stress, confusion and social cues.
  6. Task Initiation: The ability to take action regarding initiating tasks independently and on time.
  7. Organization: The ability to handle, store and retrieve materials. This also includes the ability to order thoughts and time to reach set goals.
  8. Planning, Prioritizing, and Time Management: The ability to break-down large tasks into smaller chunks, recognize appropriate time requirements, prioritize demands and balance daily living.

Five Most Helpful Strategies

In my experience as an executive skills coach, I have found that these five strategies have helped the most with college aged students:


1. Mindfulness: Use mindfulness to anchor your thoughts on your task at hand. Channel your positive energy, focus and relax. Notice quickly if your thoughts float away from the anchor and gently bring them back to your reading, writing or study.

Time Management

2. Timer: Time is often an enigma to students with executive function challenges. Use a timer for mindful focused segments and for activities where it is common to lose track of time (video games and technology).

3. Chunking: Managing projects, papers and large study tasks are often monumental and being overwhelmed could result in abandonment. Time management difficultly combined with initiation challenges demand the utilization of strategies and a purposeful plan from day one. Start with the class syllabus, a Comprehensive Planner and rubrics or clear guidelines from the professor. Break-down the task into weekly and daily manageable chunks; and make sure to celebrate each chunk accomplished!


 4. Visualization: People with executive skills challenges will easily get overwhelmed with complicated, multi-step assignments. It is important to encourage such students to visualize the finished project and employ time management strategies.

5. Priority Lists: Dr. Don's Care Packages uses a system of funneling priorities. Start with a monthly view and break-down tasks into weekly and daily priorities.

There are many effective strategies that help the development and functioning of executive skills. Everyone can benefit from taking an inventory of their strengths and weaknesses. Capitalizing on strengths and developing strategies to support weaknesses is the cornerstone to reaching one's potential.

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