Math Wheels for Note-taking?

How To Tell If Executive Function Skills Impact Math Performance

Use these helpful tips and tricks to tell if executive function skills impact math performance in your classroom this year.

Throughout my years of teaching, especially in math, I’ve seen my share of students struggling. We want our students to be challenged but within reason. Sometimes this struggle is based on understanding the math concepts, but other times it is something completely different. It’s that “other times” that we’re going to talk about today. Specifically, how do poor executive function skills affect math performance? We’ll explore how these skills play a crucial role in mastering math and how tools like math wheels can come to the rescue!

What Are Executive Function Skills?

Think of executive function skills as the behind-the-scenes champions that help us navigate the complexities of daily life. At their core, executive function skills encompass a range of abilities that enable us to plan, organize, focus attention, regulate emotions, and tackle tasks with purpose and intentionality. Let’s take a closer look at the different components a bit more:

What are executive function skills? They are the important skills at your core that help you plan, organize, focus attention, regulate emotions, and so much more.
  1. Planning and Organization: Have you ever mapped out your day, made to-do lists, and set goals? That’s your planning and organization skills at work! These skills help you break tasks into manageable steps, prioritize your time, and set yourself up for success.
  2. Focus and Attention: Ah, the ability to concentrate amidst distractions. That’s a true superpower in this digital age with devices, apps, and TV screens! Focus and attention skills allow you to stay on task, filter out irrelevant information, and maintain concentration even when faced with tempting diversions (like that adorable cat video on YouTube).
  3. Self-Regulation: Self-regulation skills help you manage your emotions, impulses, and behavior, allowing you to stay cool, calm, and collected in the face of challenges. It’s about hitting that pause button before reacting and making thoughtful, informed decisions.
  4. Problem-Solving and Flexibility: Life’s full of curveballs, but with problem-solving and flexibility skills, you’re ready to conquer them! These skills enable you to adapt to new situations, think outside the box, and come up with solutions to overcome obstacles.

While some students have these executive function skills, others may need extra support and guidance to strengthen them. That’s where we, as educators, come in! When we are aware of these struggles with executive function skills in our students, we can incorporate strategies to develop these skills instead of assuming they’re just trying to avoid work.

Executive Function Skills in Math

Let’s chat about the connection between executive function skills and math class. Math class is more than just crunching numbers and memorizing formulas. It’s a playground, or a battlefield depending on how you look at it, for executive function skills. I still remember learning long division as a student, and a problem taking up the whole page. I almost reached the end, only to discover a mistake four steps before. Math steps build on one another, so if there’s a mistake along the way, students have to start over, just like I did.

This is where executive function skills come in very handy. Let’s take another look at the four main ones, this time with a focus on math and how weak executive function skills can impact math performance!

Executive function skills in math can start with planning and organizing which can help those students facing challenges to feel more organized and ready to learn.

Planning and Organization

Our students who need help with executive function skills may find it challenging to plan and organize their approach to math tasks. They might need help breaking down complex problems into manageable steps or mapping out a strategy for solving them. As a result, they may feel overwhelmed and need help figuring out where to start, leading to lower performance in math.

Focus and Attention

Math can be a bit of a brain workout. With strong focus and attention skills, your students can tackle the trickiest of math concepts. Whether deciphering word problems or working through a challenging proof, the ability to concentrate and block out distractions is key. They might need help staying on task, following along with lessons, or completing assignments without getting sidetracked. This can result in careless errors, incomplete work, and lower math performance.


Math can be a source of frustration and anxiety for many students, but those with weak executive function skills may have trouble regulating their emotions and impulses during challenging tasks. They might become easily frustrated when faced with difficult problems. This could lead to avoidance or giving up early on in the learning process. This lack of perseverance can hinder their ability to master math concepts, resulting in lower performance.

I feel for my students who have math anxiety, especially when they find they made a mistake after doing so much work. We talk a lot in my classroom about what to do in those situations and how it’s okay to make mistakes. We look at ways to manage frustration, bounce back from setbacks, and persevere.

Problem-Solving and Flexibility

Math is all about problem-solving, but students with weak executive function skills may need help to apply effective problem-solving strategies. They might need help identifying relevant information, formulating a plan of action, or evaluating their solutions for accuracy. As a result, they may make more errors, take longer to complete tasks, and achieve lower scores on math assessments.

By honing these skills, your students are on their way to mastering math and all areas of life. With a little practice and perseverance, they will become stronger math whizzes in no time!

How to Help Students Who Lack Executive Function Skills

Alright, fellow educators, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and dive into the nitty-gritty of supporting students who may be struggling with executive function skills. I’ve got a toolbox full of tried-and-true strategies to help us empower our students to succeed. Here are some direct examples of what we can do:

Provide Clear Instructions and Expectations

One of the best ways to support students with executive function challenges is to provide clear, step-by-step instructions for tasks and assignments. Break down complex tasks into manageable chunks and clearly outline the expectations for each step. For example, when assigning a math project, provide a detailed rubric outlining the requirements, deadlines, and grading criteria. When I am writing out directions for a project, I make sure to write them as steps so my students can check them off as they go.

Model and Scaffold Problem-Solving Strategies

You can help your students develop problem-solving skills by modeling the process step-by-step. Break down sample problems into smaller, more manageable steps and guide them through each stage of the problem-solving process. I encourage them to verbalize their thought process, use vocabulary, and explain their reasoning aloud. For instance, when solving a challenging math problem, demonstrate how to identify key information, formulate a plan, and check for errors.

These 5th grade math notes are a great way to help students work on organization, working independently and math all at the same time.

Use Visual Supports and Organizational Tools

Visual supports and organizational tools can be invaluable for our students struggling with executive function skills. Provide visual aids, such as graphic organizers, flowcharts, and diagrams, to help students visualize concepts and organize information. Additionally, encourage the use of tools like planners, checklists, and digital apps to help students manage their time, prioritize tasks, and stay organized.

Offer Flexibility and Supportive Feedback

Recognize that students with executive function challenges may need additional support and flexibility to succeed. Be flexible with deadlines and allow students extra time to complete assignments when needed. Provide supportive feedback that focuses on effort, progress, and growth rather than solely on outcomes. Celebrate small victories and acknowledge students’ perseverance in the face of challenges.

Teach Self-Regulation and Coping Strategies

You can also help students develop self-regulation skills by teaching them coping strategies for managing stress, frustration, and anxiety. Teach relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing exercises and mindfulness practices, to help students calm their minds and bodies during challenging tasks. There are so many options for meditation or mindfulness practice that are only a few minutes, so no worries about taking away instruction time. A big must is to always encourage positive self-talk and self-reflection to help them build confidence in their abilities.

Math Wheels Can Help Students With Executive Function Skills

My math wheels are the perfect tool to help your students who may be struggling with their executive function skills. They are note-taking graphic organizers that break down your targeted math skill into simpler terms and steps. Remember how those bite-size chunks of instruction can help students with poor executive function skills? Well, that is exactly what Math Wheels do! And. . . they have proven an effective tool for all students. Explore Math Wheels Note-Taking Strategy to learn more about the benefits of math wheels!

Math wheels provide a structured framework for organizing information. With sections neatly divided and practice problems arranged in a pattern, your students can better manage complex math concepts and stay on track. Plus, they aren’t writing paragraphs of notes. They are writing short phrases or filling in the blanks and applying the step or direction immediately with examples.

The interactive nature of math wheels helps capture your students’ attention and keep them engaged. By incorporating elements like doodling and coloring, math wheels promote sustained focus and concentration. A win-win for mastering math skills.

As students tackle practice problems and apply key concepts, they engage in strategic planning and problem-solving. This approach helps develop critical thinking skills and enhances students’ ability to conquer math challenges with confidence. They also practice using a tool to assist them by using their notes.

Math wheels also encourage students to monitor their progress, identify areas of difficulty, and adjust their strategies. When I use math wheels, they help my students see where a sticky spot could be for them. This helps them self-advocate, leading our class discussions and practice problems. Instead of becoming overwhelmed by all the steps of a problem at once, they are able to focus on taking it one step at a time. They get to see how each step builds on the previous one to find the answer!

If you are looking for a tool to help your students become more successful in math class, take a look at Math Wheels. You can find math wheels for a variety of math skills and grade levels in my TPT store.

Continue to Build Students’ Executive Function Skills

As educators, it’s our mission to support our students in developing the executive function skills they need to succeed in math and beyond. By recognizing the importance of these skills and implementing strategies and tools like math wheels, we can help our students overcome obstacles and reach their full potential.

At the end of the day, it’s not just about mastering math concepts. We have a responsibility to equip our students with the skills they need to navigate the challenges of learning with confidence and resilience. Together, let’s continue to build a supportive and empowering learning environment where every student can thrive!

Save for Later

Remember to save this post to your favorite math Pinterest board to return to when you want to use math wheels to help with executive function skills!


Welcome to Cognitive Cardio Math! I’m Ellie, a wife, mom, grandma, and dog ‘mom,’ and I’ve spent just about my whole life in school! With nearly 30 years in education, I’ve taught:

  • All subject areas in 4th and 5th grades
  • Math, ELA, and science in 6th grade (middle school)

I’ve been creating resources for teachers since 2012 and have worked in the elearning industry for about five years as well!

If you’re looking for ideas and resources to help you teach math (and a little ELA), I can help you out!



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