Making the Internal External: Executive Functioning

Making the Internal External: Executive Functioning


Every Friday I print my “Friday Checklist.” This list includes tasks such as “inbox zero,” “review calendar and meeting notes for to-dos,” “assign a new date to uncompleted tasks,” and “review goals for new action items.” Throughout the day Friday, I move down the list, accomplishing each task. I am free to start my weekend once the list is complete. 

During our Professional Community Work week, the last week of your student’s summer vacation, Kaitlyn Huston and Maria Pevzner, the MTS learning specialist team led a session for teaching faculty on executive functioning. Executive function is the set of cognitive processes and skills that organize thoughts and activities, prioritize tasks, manage time efficiently, and make decisions. While executive functioning improves with maturity, it must also be explicitly taught. 

The mantra of Maria and Kaitlyn’s presentation about teaching executive functioning was “externalize the internal.” Adults regularly exercise our executive functioning skills internally. This morning, I started the coffee pot before the toaster and then microwaved Harrison’s lunch as this is the most efficient. This internal  thinking is executive functioning. And, I must point out, pretty impressive that I can do that before said coffee is made! While I have these internal executive functioning skills at 45, most of our students do not – these skills are fully developed in your mid-20s. To help them, we need to make this internal thinking, external.

We can externalize the internal in many different ways. Here are a few strategies to consider at home, organized from tools for our younger students to our older students:

  • Time management and time cueing. When you only have five minutes left before bedtime and your child is busy working on a drawing. Pause, and ask your child what their “plan” is for wrapping up the project in five minutes. Even more helpful, provide a kitchen timer so the child can “see” how long five minutes is.
  • Teach, model, and re-model new, routine tasks. If something is routine, name the routine, talk about how it is done well (model it), and re-model as necessary.
  • Tell AND show.  Rather than telling a child what needs to be in their backpack, create a checklist. Better yet, even if your child is a strong reader, make a visual checklist by taking photos of their actual items and including them on the checklist. Soccer on Tuesday and Thursday? Have a M/W/F visual checklist and a T/Th checklist.
  • Question rather than tell. When we have modeled and remodeled certain behavior and then provided visual support, we can improve executive functioning by questioning rather than telling. 
    • Child: “Dad?! What things do I need today?!?!”
    • Parent “What tools do you have near your backpack that will tell you the answer?” (the visual checklist). 
    • Yes, I admit it is hard to resist the “What do YOU THINK?!” but that does nothing for executive functioning and gets everyone in a bad mood. Trust me. I speak from experience.
  • Inquire to encourage planning. As you head into the weekend, talk about how much homework your child has. Work together to manage a calendar so everyone knows when the ballet performance is, who is coming over for a sleepover, and when the homework will get done. Pro-tip, do the homework before the misnomered “sleep” over.

Listening to Kaitlyn and Maria, I realized that my Friday Checklist is one way that I “externalize the internal” and support my own executive functioning when I am tired, distracted, and wanting to be somewhere else. Like all good executive functioning strategies, when I use the Friday Checklist, I invariably start the weekend earlier and carry far less work stress home with me for the weekend. Now I can take “write blog post” off my task list and will not have to move it to another day as part of my Friday Checklist!

An example of "Tell and Show" from Julia's STEM class in 1st and 2nd grades. 


Read More