How to Build Executive Functions During the 1st 15 Minutes of Class

If you teach trauma-impacted adult students who struggle with executive functions, try these evidence-based strategies in the first 15 minutes of your class to help them reduce their anxiety and build critical executive functions needed to achieve their learning goals.

What are executive functions?

  1. Inhibitory control: This is the capacity to resist reactive behavior.

  2. Working memory: This is the ability to hold on to and work with information in our minds for short amounts of time.

  3. Mental flexibility: This is the capacity to go with the flow and adjust and respond appropriately to a change in instructions, viewpoints, or priorities. [1]

Why are executive functions so critical for trauma-impacted adult students?

Beth Babcock[2] says that the very skills people with complex life challenges need in order to develop sustainable, goal driven habits are the very skills they may be lacking. Skills such as juggling competing demands, moving to Plan B when Plan A isn’t working, or keeping emotions under control when circumstances become frustrating require a set of skills known as executive functions that include capacities for inhibitory control, working memory and mental flexibility.

What might have happened to cause this lack of skills?

A lack of well-developed executive functions can be the result of persistent, toxic stress leading to trauma-impact that prevented the development of these skills when your adult students were children. Examples of toxic stressors that your students may have experienced while growing up include child abuse or neglect, poverty, parental addiction or mental health challenges, natural disasters, an incarcerated parent, domestic violence, systemic racism/historical trauma, or exposure to violence growing up in an unsafe neighborhood.[3]

What’s going on in trauma-impacted brains?

Those who suffer toxic stress in childhood may experience poor connectivity between the emotion and thinking centers of the brain. When they experience sensory input as adults – sights, sounds, smells or touch that are triggering for them, their stress response is activated and they respond impulsively to protect themselves from a perceived threat, rather than responding using the skills that executive functions provide for them.

Because they react out of fear, many times their response may not serve their goals. What you may see in class from trauma-impacted adult students is a lack of curiosity or exploring behavior; resistance to risk-taking, starting a task, responding to questions, or considering alternative viewpoints; anxiety; missing class; aggression; or a glazed, checked-out affect.[4]

Here's how you can help trauma-impacted adult students in your class.

The good news is that there are things you can do in your classroom to help adult students calm their reactivity and begin to build better connectivity between the emotion and thinking centers of their brain. Following are some helpful practices you can add to the first 15 minutes of your class or build in as processes as you teach.

Start class with mindfulness based activities

  1. Progressive Relaxation: Invite adult students to participate in a guided practice in which they sit relaxed in their chairs as you quietly talk them through relaxing each part of their body from their toes to their head. As your course progresses, invite students to lead the relaxation exercise.

  2. Focused Breathing: Invite adult students to join you as you talk them through a few rounds of focused breathing in which they exhale completely through their mouth, then breathe in through their nose for a count of four, hold their breath for a count of seven, and then exhale through their mouth for a count of eight. Again, after several weeks, invite your adult students to lead the exercise.

  3. Stop and Think[5]: When adult students get upset in class ask them if they’d be willing to do some focused breathing to give themselves a chance to calm down (stop) and then think. Once a student feels a bit calmer, ask him/her, “Does the action you want to take help you reach your goals? If not, would you like some help in thinking of an action that might better fit what you want?”

How much time will it take?

Mindfulness based activities have been shown to help people feel calmer, think more clearly, feel less depressed, reduce frustration, enjoy a greater sense of well being, and improve parent-child relationships[6], all for about 5 minutes per day of your class time. I have used these activities with great success in prison and community-based classes with trauma-impacted adult students.

Cast a vision & build a learning community around it.[7]

A successful and rewarding classroom strategy for students and teachers alike is to cast a vision of who your adult students are becoming by using the goals, characteristics and qualities they have shared are important to them to frame that vision. The literature refers to this as a “holding environment”[8] where healing from trauma has the space and nurture to evolve. An example of a way to do this is the road trip metaphor from the Parenting Inside Out curriculum in which parents identify Destination Adulthood with the hopes and dreams they have for their children. In addition they identify the nurture they will provide to help their children reach this destination. This lives as a visual metaphor on the wall for the 12 weeks of class and becomes the vision of who they are becoming and why it is important to them.

Language and modeling are critically important here. I have frequently taught parents involved in the criminal justice or child welfare systems. When a mom or dad expresses a desire to take a rash action due to upset they’ve experienced in class or a setback they’ve encountered in their attempts to connect with their children I frequently ask, “How will that response help you achieve the hopes and dreams you have for your child?” “How will that response help your child reach the goals you’ve said are important to you as a parent?” I always point them back to what’s important to them - often finding their sticky note contributions to Destination Adulthood (visible on the classroom wall) as a reminder - and then ask if they’d like help from the group thinking of alternative actions that are a better fit for their goals.

How much time will it take?

Holding hope for your adult students as you remind them of the goals and dreams they’ve shared with you requires no change at all in your lesson plan and only the time it takes to use vision casting and vision reminding language throughout your class period.

Teach adult students about their brains.

Teach your students that brains are plastic and can be shaped, changed and grown and that they can make that happen.[9],[10] By participating in class and putting effort into learning, especially when they struggle a bit with what they are learning, they are building new neural networks of knowledge. Research has shown that when students understand and believe they can change their brains and grow their intelligence they work harder, persist through struggle, and make greater academic gains.[11],[12]

How much time will it take?

Support this in just seconds of your time by commenting on effort rather than natural talent, affirming stick-to-it-iveness during struggle, and celebrating hypothesis making, exploration, trial and error and mistakes, all of which support the development of executive functions.

Start strong and gain buy-in for each day’s topic.

To increase activity in adult students’ memory centers and the release of neurotransmitters which stimulate focus and engagement[13], start each class with an opening activity that relates your day’s topic directly to your adult students’ goals, hopes and dreams while honoring their lived experience. This is your best chance of gaining their buy in for participating in the day’s session.

Good activities for stimulating engagement, focus, attention and motivation include session-related, culturally appropriate humor or surprise, a counterintuitive but relevant statistic, a thought provoking question or inspiring story. Search Youtube, newspapers and magazines for topic-related short video clips, stories, poems, statistics, quotes or cartoons. Immerse your adult students in the experience you’ve introduced and then pose a question, ask if they can relate, poll their opinions, and draw them into discussion or invite them to share their opinions. The goal here is to stimulate their memories, focus and gain their attention, and increase their motivation to actively participate in the day’s session because they feel connected to the day’s topic. Wrap up the activity by sharing the lesson’s intended outcome and pointing out how the day’s session can support them in the topic-related issues they just told you they feel strongly about.

How much time will it take?

Building in an engaging, neurotransmitter-producing opening activity may take you 10 minutes but you’ll make it up by not having to waste your time and energy coaxing, prodding, and reminding learners to stay on task and complete their work because you’ve taken the time to get them on board and relate their session’s work to what they care about and their lived experience.

Reduce student anxiety and set them up for success.

  1. Offer lots of reminders. If you teach outside of an institution, provide text message reminders about classwork, next class meetings or homework. Text reminders have been shown to increase engagement and follow through with the effective habits you are teaching in class.[14] If you are in an institution where adult students don’t have access to technology, remind them about assignments or inquire about progress when you see them outside of the classroom.

  2. Provide lots of success checklists. When you assign work, provide a success checklist to show what an excellent work product should include. Research shows that people perform better when they know and understand the criteria and standards for success.

  3. Provide a comprehensive course checklist: On the first day of class, provide a list of all work due and course requirements and their due dates. This breaks your big course down into manageable steps and tasks and helps reduce student anxiety. Keep one for each student and mark on it as they turn work in and invite each student to keep one for him/herself. At the halfway point through your class, collect student checklists and compare them with yours. Write a quick sticky note of encouragement for those who are on track. Create plans with students who are not on track or who have a very different interpretation of where they are than you have. These early alerts increase the likelihood that students will get back on track and successfully complete your course.

How much time will it take?

Admittedly, #3 takes time. I deal with this by planning a catch up day in my courses, at the halfway point. I collect and compare the checklists in the session before the catch up day. On catch up day, I give back their checklists with my sticky note comments and allow students to use the day to work on incomplete work. I offer art materials for those who don’t have any catch up work and/or invite them to make themselves available to help others who need extra support. I can then meet with those who require more one-on-one help, to put a plan in place for catching up. This is time-consuming but invaluable in supporting mental flexibility and building the executive skills of goal setting and action planning and thinking in terms of “Plan B” – a critical executive function when faced with multiple life challenges.

Use worksheets for goal setting, action planning and self-monitoring.

Create a worksheet your adult students can use for goal setting, action planning and self-monitoring.[15] I use these after the engaging opening activity and the sharing of the intended outcome. I invite students to set an outcome related goal for themselves and record it on the worksheet. Students revisit this worksheet for both progress monitoring and self-evaluation of goal achievement using guided reflection questions that build executive functions. Use the button at the end of the post to download a goal setting and action planning worksheet your students can use in your class.

For example, in a class for incarcerated parents on effective listening, after showing a provocative clip in which someone demonstrates very poor listening and asking learners to describe similar experiences and how those experiences made them feel, I share the intended outcome. The intended outcome for this session is: You will use effective listening (“I’m listening” verbal feedback and body language, reflecting back what you hear, and acknowledging how the other feels) on a phone call, in a visit, or in a letter, in an effort to improve an important relationship in your life.[16]

Then I invite students to set a learning goal including WHOM they’d like to target with their improved listening skills and WHEN and HOW they will pursue this goal. Adult students return to this worksheet to monitor their progress, adapt their plan, build their repertoire of strategies for achieving their goal, and record their learning accomplishments – all of which build their executive functions.

How are you building executive functions in your adult students?

Please join the conversation below and share your strategies for improving executive functions in your adult learners.


[1] Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2016). Building core capabilities for life: The science behind the skills adults need to succeed in parenting and in the workplace.

[2] Babcock, B. (2013). Using brain science to create new pathways out of poverty. TEDx Beacon Street.

[3] Perry, B.D. (2006). Fear and learning: Trauma-related factors in the adult education process. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2006(110).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, op. cit.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Johnson, S. (2006). The neuroscience of the mentor-learner relationship. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2006(110), p. 64.

[9] Wilson, D. & Conyers, M. (2014). Instruction that sticks: The boss of my brain. Educational Leadership, 72(2).£The-Boss-of-My-Brain£.aspx 

[10] Cozolino, L. & Sprokay, S. (2006). Neuroscience and adult learning. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2006(110).

[11] Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

[12] Wilson, D. & Conyers, M. op. cit.

[13] Willis, J. (2014). Brain-based learning: The neuroscience behind stress and learning. Edutopia.

[14] Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, op. cit.

[15] Cranton, P. (2002). Teaching for transformation. Contemporary Viewpoints on Teaching Adults Effectively, New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2002(93).

[16] Schiffmann, T., Eddy, J. M., Martinez, C. R., Jr., Leve, L., & Newton, R. (2007). Parenting Inside Out: Parent management training. Portland, OR: Children's Justice Alliance and Oregon Social Learning Center.