Jul 17, 2018

Designing Educational Spaces That Support Executive Function

By Dr. Nancy Sulla

Imagine you enter your home, fling open the door, and the door knob punches a hole in your wall. You decide to fix it yourself. All you have to do is “Google” it. You locate a how-to sheet with step-by-step directions for spackling a wall; you find a video of someone demonstrating the process. Easy, right? Not so fast. Suppose you did not possess the skills of focus, following multiple steps, shifting focus from one event to another, catching and correcting errors, attending to an activity, and persisting in a task? Even the best how-to sheet or video would not yield success. Those are just some of the skills of executive function, managed by a part of your brain just behind your forehead.

It turns out that living in situations of chronic stress, such as poverty, domestic violence, abuse, protracted divorce, and even having parents that put constant pressure on you to succeed, can slow the development of this part of the brain. In his book, How Children Succeed, Paul Tough (2013) draws the correlation between poverty and poor academic achievement due to lack of executive function. Is it possible, then, that the rush to purchase better instructional materials and provide professional development to teachers to offer better lessons might not provide the answer to student achievement as much as would building executive function? Consider that most content you need to master today is easily found on the Internet. What is not found there is the ability to think critically, reason, see unintended consequences -- the skills of executive function. The good news is that the part of the brain that handles executive function has the ability to develop further; we can improve students’ executive function.

The history of classroom design has been to focus on teaching, with students being able to face the front of the room for lessons; but what if, instead, we design classrooms that focus learning, with an emphasis on ensuring growth in executive function that will lead to student achievement? In Learner-Active, Technology-Infused Classrooms (Sulla, 2011), students engage in solving real-world problems. Drawing from myriad related learning activities identified and designed by the teacher, students schedule how they will use their class time to learn the content needed to solve the problem. While there are times when the teacher addresses the whole class, these are short 10-15 minute presentations to introduce concepts and raise students’ awareness of what they need to learn. So rather than designing the room to accommodate those few moments over the course of a day or week, the classroom is designed to allow for various opportunities to engage with and grapple with content.

Executive function skills are not strengthened through lessons as much as they are through classroom structures and continued use. In my book, Building Executive Function: The Missing Link to Student Achievement (2018), I take a different approach to executive function skills. Rather than starting with the skills themselves, I recommend focusing on the greater life skills that executive function skills support, namely conscious control, engagement, collaboration, empowerment, efficacy, and leadership. Following are ideas for building educational spaces that support these skills.

Consider the following physical spaces in a classroom to promote greater executive function while advancing academic achievement:

Discourse Center
An area of soft seating with couches and chairs provides a comfortable place for students to discuss their work and texts they are reading. If you can, physically design the space to be tucked into an indented area and have a “nook” feel to it.  Here students build conscious control and engagement, practicing the executive function skills of focus, attending to a person or activity, concentrating, maintaining social appropriateness, and more. Offer students discussion protocols, or “norms of engagement,” so that they see what is expected of them in this area. These may include summarizing what others have said, making a connection to or transition from the last person who spoke, ensuring that all students participate in the conversation, etc.

Observation Deck
Creativity is an executive function skill: it is not a personality trait that only some possess; it can be developed in all. Highly creative people observe (Kaufman & Gregoire, 2015).  Design an area where students can observe. It should have a window to the outside; however, it could also have a counter on which to place various objects, plants, and animals for observation. Here, students build conscious control and engagement. As students build the ability to observe and record observations, they can advance to anticipating and making predictions.

Conference Area
A conference table offers students a place to discuss their readings and research when they need to have perhaps texts, paper, and/or computers with them. Design seating for a group of no more than four at the elementary grades and up to eight at the secondary level. Students sign up to use the conference area for their small-group discussions. Offer students discussion protocols to follow. Here, given the appropriate tasks, students build conscious control, engagement, empowerment, efficacy, and leadership.

Collaborative Area
Collaboration requires the executive function skills of seeing multiple sides of a situation, being open to others’ points of views, maintaining social appropriateness, and overcoming temptation. Students also build skills related to problem-solving, advancing efficacy. The keys to designing collaborative spaces are having 1) a table size that allows students to talk and engage with collaborative materials easily; 2) an unbroken surface area, as opposed to desks pushed together; 3) a round table so that no one is at the head of the table. I recommend 42” table diameters or, in the case of a clover table, 48” (the indentation offers a 42” diameter while the protruded area offers a 48” diameter.) Collaboration is not a process of divide-and-conquer; it requires students to “come to the table” with individual mastery and synthesize to develop a better end product. Provide students with consensus-building tools to guide their interaction. 

Individual Work Area
At times, students need to work independently to build content mastery. Design a section of the room with individual desks apart from the noisier collaborative areas. As students consider their goals and schedule how they will use time, they build important executive function skills related to empowerment, such as monitoring performance, managing time, and reflecting on goals. As they tackle real-world problems, both individually and collaboratively, they build the executive function skills for efficacy -- being able to identify a goal and create a plan to achieve it.

Quiet Work Zone
For students who struggle with focus, concentration, attending to a person or activity, persisting in a task, and overcoming temptation, a quiet work zone will support their growth. Consider study carrels designed to minimize distractions.

Small-Group, Mini-Lesson Area
Students build academic skills through learning activities, teacher facilitation, and small-group lessons offered by the teacher on targeted skills or concepts. It is important to put a table (rectangular or kidney shaped) in an area of the room with a white board and, if possible, projection capability. Students sign up to attend small-group, mini-lessons, building greater executive function skills toward empowerment. Teachers can also require certain students to attend specific lessons.

Daydream Center
Creative people daydream! (Kaufman & Gregoire, 2015) How wonderful to build a space in a room where students can spend a ten-minute period just daydreaming. Fill it with stimulating images and colors.

Game Area
Games, particularly games of strategy, are powerful tools for building the executive function skills for engagement and efficacy, including making mental images, identifying cause-and-effect relationships, and considering future consequences in light of current action. Set up some tables and fill the shelves with board games. Computer games are welcome as well!

Maker Space / STEM Area
Many teachers these days are designing areas to fill with materials that allow students to make objects and/or use a design process to solve a STEM problem. Fill shelves with see-through bins of materials and let students creativity flow! A good design process will move students between divergent and convergent thinking, exercising myriad executive function skills.

Next time you consider designing educational spaces, whether a classroom or entire school, consider how the physical space can promote greater executive function toward increased student achievement.


Kaufman, S.B., Gregoire, C. (2015). Wired to create: Unraveling the mysteries of the creative
mind. New York: Penguin.

Sulla, N. (2011). Students taking charge: Inside the learner-active, technology-infused
classroom. New York: Routledge.

Sulla, N. (2018). Building executive function: The missing link to student achievement. New York: Routledge.

Tough, P. (2013) How children succeed: Grit, curiosity, and the hidden power of character. New York: Mariner Books.

 About the Author

Dr. Nancy Sulla is the President, IDE Corp. — Innovative Designs in Education and an author and the creator of the Learner-Active, Technology-Infused Classroom. You can follow Nancy’s blog and find out more about her at www.nancysulla.com and her company at www.idecorp.com.

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