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Executive Functioning Skills Optimize One’s Potential

It’s a new year and a good time to reset routines, habits, and behaviors. It’s also an optimal time for gifted students to sharpen their executive functioning skills. When given differentiated learning experiences such learning contracts, research opportunities, or independent choice activities, they should be fully equipped to organize, plan, and execute their passions. Have you ever wondered why a gifted student may appear stuck or unable to move forward when given independent tasks or the academic freedom they say they desire? It may be the result of a lack of executive functioning skills in their toolbox that are needed to help connect the overall goal of a project with the action needed to move forward.

What are executive functioning skills?

Sometimes referred to as cognitive controls, executive functioning skills are mental processes that regulate and control behavior. Some skills include, but are not limited to, metacognition, emotional self-regulation, time management, organization, task initiation, short- and long-term planning, impulse control, working memory, prioritizing tasks, and much more. Due to the asynchronous development of gifted children, many of these skills lag while gifted students’ cognitive abilities continue to grow. The great news is that these skills can be developed and improved at any point in life! Gifted children need explicit direction and facilitation to utilize these skills and maximize their potential. How can we do that?

Below are three ways to assist gifted children with executive functioning skills when they are given academic freedom and independence:  

Coach toward goal-setting targets

Set short- and long-term goals when gifted students are given independent tasks. This process allows them to visualize how their passions and interests can evolve into a plan of action. Student conferences and dialogue with facilitators or mentors are the best way to collaborate on goals that promote executive functioning skills such as prioritization, organization, and planning. When setting goals, identify clear, defined outcomes that will help gifted students create a vision for what motivates them.

Cue controls through systems

After goals are set, use a system to help gifted students begin their journey of developing their executive functioning skills through day-to-day experiences. Systems are tools gifted students use to reach their goals such as checklists, verbal check-ins, charts, visual note cards, organizers, lists, and/or journals to help redefine abstract concepts such as time management or impulse control into tangible cues that nudge gifted students toward their goals. As executive functioning skills become natural and automatic, cue systems can gradually fade out, and gifted students can work on new skills relevant for the task at hand.

Celebrate gains throughout the journey

It is not easy to develop and regulate executive functioning skills when they are sources of struggle, so it is crucial that growth is celebrated throughout the process. There are times when gifted students will meet with difficulty or roadblocks, but the key is helping students understand what they have learned about themselves through the process and clearly lay out next steps for achieving goals. To maximize student efforts, plan to develop one or two skills at a time.

Once students utilize executive functioning skills easily, their potential can flourish and unleash their imagination, creativity, and passions. The development of executive functioning skills can take gifted students from being dreamers to doers with tools to implement their visions. 


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