3 ways to teach students with executive functioning deficits to visualize time

Why special education directors should emphasize promotion of students' executive functioning skills
By: | March 12, 2021

Students with disabilities may become anxious when faced with an assignment or task, and they may disengage completely because they lack executive functioning skills.

If special education directors don’t emphasize the need to promote students’ executive functioning skills with staff, they risk denying students free appropriate public education because they’ve failed to meet students’ unique needs.

“Kids look at an assignment and immediately think, ‘This is going to be so difficult,’ and they haven’t accurately sized up the assignment, so they become overwhelmed,” said Sarah Ward, a speech and language pathologist and co-director of Cognitive Connections LLP in Concord, Mass.

“Executive function is what allows you to have flexible thinking and visualize time. They have to be able to see an assignment, break it down, know what’s required, and initiate that, too,” Ward said.

Use these ideas to promote students’ executive functioning skills and reduce their anxiety so they will remain engaged in learning:

1. Promote 360-degree thinking.

Help students visualize the available amount of time they have in the day to complete tasks, Ward said.

Students with executive functioning deficits can’t naturally visualize the sweep of time within their routine. For instance, if a typically developing student has to leave for school at 7:45, he may recognize that he needs to shower at 7:15, eat breakfast by 7:30, brush his teeth by 7:35, and grab his lunch and get to the car by 7:45.

If he takes a longer shower, he knows to make up the time during another task. He can visualize the span of time in increments and adjust accordingly.

A student with executive functioning deficits doesn’t visualize increments of time on an analog clock. He just thinks 7:45 and that’s anxiety-producing.

“They don’t pace themselves because they don’t see what actions they can fit in and how they can compromise some things for other things,” she said. “Then they’re frustrated that their parent is yelling at them.”

To address this, encourage the student to use or create a planner with 15-minute increments of time on it for each day, Ward said.

The student may start with a paper version but may transfer to Google Calendar or another app on his phone as he matures. “This really helps students see the volume of time and see how the time is going to come together,” she said.

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x Also post an agenda for the day or class period with digital times in the classroom in 15-minute increments and shade in the amount of time students have to do an in-class project, Ward said. “If you shade in two 15-minute increments, 30 minutes doesn’t look like as a big of a deal,” she said.

2. Mark off analog clock.

To show how long students have to complete a quiz or assignment, mark off 15-minute increments on an analog clock and use dry erase marker to shade in the time available, Ward said.

“The minute hand passes through the shaded block of time and allows the student to see the time available. The student can look back to the time that has passed and get a sense for how they utilized that time,” she said. “I find it lessens their anxiety.”

The student can think about her “time robbers,” such as talking with her friends, and how they got in her way. Then, she can work with you on preventing them in the future.

3. Encourage flexible thinking.

A student with executive functioning deficits may be given a specific amount of time for a project, but he becomes anxious and disengages because he thinks what he wants to do is too complex for the time he has, Ward said. “Some kids think, ‘Well, if I can’t make it how I like, I’m not doing it at all,'” she said. “They have a sense of it’s being all or nothing.”

Break down options for completing the activity, Ward said. For instance, if a student must make a diorama, share the range of forms of artistic expression he can use to complete the project in the allotted time.

The student can decide if he will have time to just color in drawings or add ribbon, 3-D objects, or something else more elaborate that exceeds expectations.

“You don’t want to put the kibosh on perfectionism, but if he wants to exceed expectations, he needs to start with this idea of this is the amount of time he has and this is the level he can complete at this point in time,” she said.

Cara Nissman covers autism, school psychology, and IEP team issues for LRP Publications.