Executive Functioning IEP Goals for Sustained Attention: Helping Kids Who Struggle

Updated: Aug 25

It's no secret that kids these days have a lot of distractions vying for their attention - from smartphones and tablets to the endless amount of stimuli in today's classrooms.

Sustained attention, or the ability to maintain focus despite distractions, is critical for success in school and life. So, taking a deep look into executive functioning deficits may be a key to unlocking that success for students with specific learning disabilities.

In order to help these students, it is important to understand the different areas of executive functioning that impact sustained attention. In this article, we'll discuss what executive functioning is and how to set IEP goals related to sustained attention.

What executive functioning is

Executive functioning skills are the cognitive processes that help us plan, organize, and complete tasks. These skills involve working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control.

Sustained attention is the ability to maintain focus on a task or activity despite distractions, fatigue, or boredom. In order to sustain attention on a task, individuals must be able to filter out distractions, resist impulsive behaviors, remember instructions, and persist in the face of frustration.

For students who struggle with sustaining attention in the classroom setting, there are a few key areas of executive functioning that may be impacting their ability to focus:

Working memory

This is the ability to hold information in your mind while you work with it. For example, when a teacher is giving instructions for a math problem, working memory allows students to hold onto the instructions in their minds while they complete the problem.

Mental flexibility

This is the ability to switch between tasks or adapt to changes in your environment. For example, if a student is working on a writing assignment and gets interrupted by a fire drill, they will need to be able to stop what they are doing and follow the new instructions (evacuating the building).


This is the ability to resist impulses and manage emotions. For example, if a student wants to talk to their friend instead of paying attention in class, they will need self-control to resist that impulse and focus on the task at hand.

There are a few different ways that you can help students who struggle with sustaining attention in the classroom:

Provide clear and concise instructions: When giving directions for an assignment, be sure to give all instructions at once and allow time for questions. It may also be helpful to write down the instructions or have them available as a reference.

Break tasks into smaller steps: When a task seems overwhelming, breaking it down into smaller steps can make it seem more manageable. For example, if a student is working on a science project, they can break the project down into smaller tasks such as researching their topic, making a list of materials needed, and writing their report.

Give frequent reminders: Reminding students of what they need to do and when they need to do it can help them stay on track. For example, if a student is working on a writing assignment, you could remind them to take breaks every 20 minutes or to set a timer for each task.

Provide opportunities for movement: Incorporating movement into the classroom can help students who struggle with sustaining attention. For example, you could allow students to stand up and stretch every 20 minutes or have them walk around the room while they are working on an assignment.

Give positive reinforcement: Recognizing when students are demonstrating sustained attention can help motivate them to continue using this skill. For example, you could give verbal praise such as “I noticed that you’ve been working on that assignment for the last 20 minutes without getting up or talking to your neighbor. Great job!”

If you have students who are struggling with sustaining attention in the classroom, try implementing some of these strategies to help them be successful. Sustained attention is an important skill that will help them not only in school but in all aspects of their life.

Do you have any questions about executive functioning or IEP goals? Leave a comment below or contact us today! We're here to help!

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