Focus, Working Memory, Time, Organization in Literacy

By Mandy Ubele | Categories: Expert Voices

Executive Function in the Classroom

As a teacher of first, third, and fourth grades over the course of my teaching career, I cannot count the number of times that I have pleaded with students to focus, organize their materials, and complete a task in a certain amount of time—resulting many times in students not doing as I instructed. This usually happened not because they were defiant; I always took pride in the safe and caring learning environments and rapport that I fostered in my classes.  

I have come to realize that many times students were not focusing or organizing or completing tasks on time because those are skills that don’t come naturally to some children. Some students need explicit teaching of those executive functions (EF), and as an educator, I never learned that nor had time to do so during the instructional day.

I have come to realize that many times students were not focusing or organizing or completing tasks on time because those are skills that don’t come naturally to some children.

“Students need to be taught to set goals, organize, prioritize, and self-regulate beginning in the early elementary grades, and these EF processes should be explicitly connected to the academic curriculum” (Meltzer, 2018, p. 2). In the next three blog posts of this series we will examine how different executive functions (and their deficits) present in a child in a school setting and what supports to look for in curriculum to build these skills. 

Executive Functions: Focus, Working Memory, Time Management, and Organization

In this blog post, we will delve into the executive functions focus, working memory, time management, and organization. I have included quotes on executive function by experts Lynn Meltzer and Rebecca Branstetter that describe the cognitive processes behind each of these EF skills and how instruction can develop and hone them. For each skill, I have also included an explicit list of instructional supports to look for in a curriculum in order to make sure you are teaching these important functions.

Let’s first explore Focus, Working Memory, Time Management, and Organization. 


  • “Sustained focus is the ability to keep at a task long enough to complete it, whereas divided focus is the ability to manage several tasks at once”  (Branstetter, 2014, p. 95) … “when a child is doing two tasks that involve the same part of the brain, the competition for attention resources makes both tasks more difficult, makes both longer to complete, and makes it harder to remember and deepen the learning.  For example, when a student is trying to decide how to respond to a text and write a paper at the same time, the brain is using the same regions—the prefrontal cortex and language centers—to plan and organize what to say.  Further, in this example, the student has to switch from informal text writing to formal essay writing and this can wear out cognitive resources.  This can cause mental fatigue and more mistakes” (p. 99).
  • “For students with learning and attention difficulties, strategy instruction needs to be explicit, structured, and recursive and should be a requirement for in-class and homework assignments”  (Meltzer, 2018, p. 134).
A young black female wearing glasses is holding the book "Goldilocks and The Three Bears" and reading closely.
A student focuses intently on a book she is reading.
  • Predictable lesson structure that allows students to focus on the task at hand and ignore external distractions 
  • Daily lessons that include opportunities to monitor attention and teach skills on how to refocus when necessary
  • Writing units that are organized by genre, thus allowing students to focus on one type of writing for an entire unit

Working Memory 

  • “…refers to a finite cognitive system for temporarily storing and processing information. Several subtasks of reading comprehension rely on working memory: maintaining lexical context for word meanings, storing and updating concepts over the course of sentences and larger units of text, and comparing text to a search value, when reading for specific information (Meltzer, 2018, pp. 204-205).
  • Working memory deficits have been specifically linked to poor comprehension, independent of word recognition skills (Meltzer, 2018; Swanson and Beringer, 1995).
  • Priming can lead to improved working memory. When we prime our students we are setting them up with the information that they are about to receive. “This gives her a ‘file’ for the information in her mind”  (Branstetter, 2014, p. 119).
  • Another strategy that can aid in remembering information for the long term is elaboration. This “is a strategy that helps the child link new information to something she already knows” (Branstetter, 2014, p. 123).
  • The brain is better able to recall what is learned if it gets information from more than one sense. This is sometimes referred to as “multisensory” learning (Branstetter, 2014, p. 122).
  • Multiple opportunities for priming (wait time, home and school connection activities, consistent partners, etc.) 
  • Priming strategy: Lessons begin with setting the students up for what they will be learning and practicing that day both academically and socially
  • Decodable stories with words containing the phonics skills learned and practiced in that lesson and previous lessons

Time Management

  • “Children and adolescents with time-management issues also struggle with projecting into the future and are therefore hurried or stressed, or give up on finishing tasks” (Branstetter, 2014, p. 103).
  • “Teach students strategies for organizing their time, materials, and ideas so that they can meet deadlines” (Meltzer, 2018, p. 135).
  • Predictable lesson structure that provides students scaffolding with reasonable chunks of time to read a story, write (sounds/words/sentences), etc.
  • Independent work that affords students opportunities to practice managing their time and work flow
  • A getting ready to write part of each lesson where children are prompted to turn and talk about what they will be writing in that day’s writing time


  • “Children with organizational difficulties are frequently messy and require more support than others their age to remember (or find!) needed items. Studies have shown that explicit instruction in organization improves organization of materials, homework management, time management, planning, and grades (Branstetter, 2014, p. 172).
  • “Kids with executive functioning challenges do not automatically ask themselves the questions needed to decide what is trash and what is treasure” (Branstetter, 2014, p. 178).
  • Family letters that support and connect lessons from the school day to a child’s home life
  • Explicit instruction for students on  how to organize/manage the variety of learning tools such as independent work bins, poetry notebooks, small-group reading and IDR texts 
  • Scaffolds that are put in place and eventually removed for those students who need additional support with organizational skills

Teachers wear many hats every single day and then a variety of different hats the next, and so on for the entire school year. As a former teacher and literacy coach, I know that we want to meet the needs of every single student and create a joyful learning environment each day.  Some would say this is an impossible feat, but it makes me think of the Maya Angelou quote, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” 

With the information presented in this blog, it is my hope that we will do better when it comes to understanding the behaviors of children that may present as misbehaviors or solely as academic failings. Is it as simple as growing teacher and administrator knowledge of how executive function challenges present in school? According to Meltzer (2018), “Improved systems for identifying and teaching students with EF weaknesses will help both educators and parents to foster persistence, resilience, and academic success, thus improving the long-term outcomes for more students” (p. 137).

The next blog post will highlight how task initiation, flexibility, and task completion impact literacy learning and what curriculum supports help students with those executive function challenges.

To learn more about this blog series, The Impact of Executive Function Skills on Literacy Learning, read the introduction by series author Mandy Ubele.


Branstetter, R. (2014).  The Everything Parent’s Guide to Children with Executive Function Disorder. Everything®  Series by Simon & Schuster.

Meltzer, L. (2018) Executive Function in Education: From Theory to Practice, Second Edition. Guilford Press.

Read a recent EdWeek opinion article about executive function.

Learn more about Collaborative Classroom programs.