August 7, 2023

School Supplies to Enhance Executive Function Skills

By Jess Holman, Instructor

Sticky notes. Folders. A kitchen timer. You likely have basic supplies like these lying around the house. Did you know these simple school supplies can make a world of difference in supporting your child’s executive function skills? Read on to learn five must-have materials and best practices in how to implement them.

A Timer

For students who have a hard time with time management, it can be helpful to use a timer for studying, completing homework, organizing, cleaning, practicing an instrument, doing laundry, and other tasks that you or your child may have little intrinsic motivation to complete. Whether you’re using a digital timer on a device or a physical timer, timers can break up overwhelming tasks into manageable, tangible pieces and help students gain a better sense of elapsed time. Since timers are on so many of our devices, here are some tips on getting started: 

  • Use a timer to structure student breaks. Depending on the age of your student and the task they’re completing, it can be helpful to set timers to refocus their attention on a task after 3 minutes, 5, minutes, 8 minutes, etc. 
  • If using a timer for homework, consider using an online timer instead of a phone timer. While students may work productively for their first “burst” of time, using a phone (with all its built-in distractions) can make it harder to resume working after that quick break. 
  • When using a timer to organize a space or materials, consider cleaning alongside your student on your own cleaning project. Modeling the strategies your student is learning is an invaluable teaching tool! 
  • Before getting started on a task, have your student estimate how long they think that job may take them. Then, have them measure the actual elapsed time. What can they learn by comparing the estimate vs. the actual? What might that mean moving forward? 

A Planner

For students who have a hard time managing their homework assignments or extracurricular activities, it can be extremely helpful to record all of their tasks in one location. While some students prefer an online system (such as Google Keep or Google Calendar), other students may benefit from a physical planner that they carry with them at school. Given the overwhelming number of planners available, here are a few things to consider when beginning to use a planner: 

  • The size and layout of the physical planner itself matters. If there is not enough room for your student to write down their assignments, they will likely not consistently use the planner. It’s important to connect with your student about what layout appeals to and may be most functional from their perspective. For online, you want to make sure you find something intuitive that doesn’t require too many steps. Simple and straightforward often works best. 
  • When your student first obtains a new planner, it can be helpful to model how to use the planner (important for online planners, too). First, have the student decide what type of writing utensil(s) they will use if a physical planner – remind them that plans change frequently, and it can be helpful to write in pencil and erase (not a problem online)! Other students may prefer to use colored pens and assign each color to a particular class, task, or activity. 
  • For both online and physical planners, students often benefit from a checklist of steps guiding them in how to fill in their planner. It may be helpful to break down the task into explicit steps such as: 
    • Write down extracurricular activities and appointments
    • Write down every class, every day 
    • If there is no homework, write NONE in that space
    • Cross off each item as you complete it

A Monthly Calendar

Developmentally, students are programmed to think short-term since they’re still developing their long-term planning and thinking skills. It can be helpful to place a monthly calendar near your students’ workspace to help them conceptualize and map out longer-term tasks. If you have a monthly calendar in your home, here are some tips to make it a part of your childs’ executive function toolbox:

  • There’s no one-size-fits-all monthly calendar! The monthly calendar could be a part of the student planner, a separate whiteboard, etc. 
  • If it’s a physical calendar, be intentional about where the calendar is located. Place the calendar in a space your child can easily access and visit as a part of their daily routine (for example, their desk, the bathroom they brush their teeth in, or the kitchen) to build on an existing routine. 
  • Encourage your child to use the monthly calendar to chunk larger tasks, such as papers, projects, large reading assignments or tests. These tasks cannot effectively be left to the night before. What can your student do each night to move towards completion of that larger goal? Have them write down daily action items on the monthly calendar.


Regardless of whether they are accessing physical or digital folders (or both!), students who know where to find their materials quickly and easily are more likely to complete their assignments on time. A few considerations:

  • There are many folder options out there. Show your student some choices and have them pick their best way! Accordion style folders can be great for organizing multiple subjects in a single carrier, matching colored folders and binders allow for each class to associate with a different color, and two pocket folders intrinsically help students sort into “to-do” and “done” piles.
  • It is often assumed that technology adept students have great online organization skills – this is not necessarily true! Many students benefit from help when creating folders and online organizational systems. Model how to create and title a folder. Model how to move relevant documents in there. And model doing this on a weekly basis so there is a habit of regular maintenance rather than a logjam of documents to deal with later on.
  • Whether using an online or physical folder, create designated spaces to file away old work. Papers from last year don’t need to be readily accessible, nor do online documents from 2021. Help students create filing cabinets (both physically and digitally) to declutter and visualize what’s really important/relevant. 

Sticky Notes 

Sticky notes are a versatile school supply that can enhance multiple executive functioning skills. 

  • When actively reading a text, students can use sticky notes as a bookmark or flag important quotes, plot points, or themes. Post It Flags are also simple and easy, especially if your child color codes them (blue for quotes, yellow for new characters, etc.)
  • To improve planning and time management skills, students may benefit from using a sticky note to create a prioritized to-do list before diving into individual tasks.
  • To make studying from a textbook or notes document more active, students can use sticky notes to cover a part of the text. Then, they can either write-in definitions or say it aloud and check themselves. For students who may not have time to make flashcards, this can be a relatively-quick and helpful way to prepare for an exam. 

Of course, all of these school supplies are most impactful when students have agency and choices about the materials they use and how they use them. As you work to build on your students’ executive functioning toolbox, remember that they are the expert in what tools – and supplies – work best for them!