How to Help Your “Lazy,” “Irresponsible” Student with their Executive Functioning Disability

May 24, 2017
Lauren Martin
Lauren M., M.Ed

As a special education teacher at a rigorous high school, I was constantly frustrated with students I viewed as “lazy” or “irresponsible.” I also found myself defending students when general education teachers accused them of “not trying” on a challenging assignment. Then I attended a special education conference where I learned that I had been treating an academic disability as a behavior issue.

Do you have a student who always loses their materials, is never prepared for class, forgets due dates and test days, is incapable of planning ahead or setting goals, or appears to not try when given an assignment? These are the signs of an executive functioning disorder. Stop giving your students consequences for their misbehavior and start providing academic interventions for their learning disability.

Like many educators, I was familiar with the thirteen categories of special education that a student can be classified with on their IEP (Individualized Education Plan), including: Learning disability, speech or language impairment, intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorder, emotional disturbance, etc. I was not aware that other “learning profiles” existed that could explain many of my general education and special education students’ academic and behavioral challenges. I hope you find the below summary of executive functioning characteristics, struggles and classroom interventions as useful as I did.

Executive Functioning Skills

  • Initiating and planning work
  • Sorting, organizing, memorizing, shifting strategies and being flexible in thinking
  • Self-monitoring/checking
  • Keeping track of time and more than one thing at once
  • Meaningfully including past knowledge into discussions
  • Engaging in group dynamics
  • Evaluating ideas
  • Finishing work on time
  • Asking for help
  • Seeking more information when needed to complete a task
  • Difficulty retaining information
  • Performance anxiety

Signs of Executive Functioning Disorder

  • Has trouble planning and setting goals
  • Is disorganized with papers and materials
  • Is disorganized with thought patterns
  • Struggles to tell a story verbally or in writing
  • Struggles to remember or prepare for deadlines, due dates or tests
  • Struggles to finish work on time
  • Does not know when, why or how to ask for help
  • Has difficulty with working memory: Retaining information while doing something with it (remembering a phone number while dialing)
  • May have performance anxiety
  • May feel overwhelmed without a strategy or plan

Classroom Strategies

  • Give written instructions that mirror verbal instructions whenever possible
  • Provide explicit, step-by-step directions for all projects and assignments, including check-lists and to-do lists (get out pencil, put name on paper, put date on paper, read directions, raise hand for questions, etc.)
  • Break long-term assignments into chunks and assign scaffolded due-dates
  • Clearly mark due-dates at the top of each assignment
  • Provide visual organization aids (schedules / diagrams / daily agenda)
  • Provide stop watche, timer or alarm clock
  • Schedule a daily or weekly check-in to set to create a to-do list with suggested times/dates
  • Schedule a daily or weekly check-in to help clean and organize work materials
  • Provide direct instruction and explicit feedback
  • Offer frequent reassurance

The special education conference on executive functioning disorders transformed the way I viewed and responded to student behavior. It also changed the way students responded to me. Students I had scolded for “not trying” or for “not taking care of their materials” once responded to me with further frustration or apathy. Now, I assumed the best about students by acknowledging the difficulty of their situation and brainstorming together to form solution-oriented action plans. As I more positively and proactively responded  to students who struggled with executive functioning skills, they were more positive and proactive in return. I hope you can use the above guide as a tool to help every teacher and student at your school teach and learn strong executive functioning skills.

2 thoughts on “How to Help Your “Lazy,” “Irresponsible” Student with their Executive Functioning Disability”

  1. This is a wonderful article. We all learn in different ways and what could be considered a sign of laziness is just an inability to learn through traditional methods. Sometimes a different path needs to be taken to get the point across. Paying attention to the markers you described is a big step forward in the right direction.

    Comics are a great way to teach people and Pixton has been in the forefront in doing just that for as long as I can remember.

    1. Thanks David, we appreciate the feedback, it’s great to hear from our readers. Are there any topics in your opinion that should be getting more coverage?


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