What are executive functions?
Where’s my phone? Where are my keys? I forgot my folder! I can’t finish this assignment! I can’t figure out this math word problem! Executive function (EF) is the ability to plan and organize information in order to execute a task. Jacoby (n.d.) identified several aspects of EF: Attention, organization and planning, self-regulation, self-monitoring, problem-solving, working memory, memory retrieval, time management.
Attention: Focusing on one piece of information while ignoring the rest.
Organization: Ability to organize work space, materials and information.
Planning: Prioritize and sequence actions into achievement.
Self Regulation: Get started, maintaining effort to complete task.
Self monitoring: Evaluate self, adjust behavior.
Cognitive Flexibility: Change view or adapt approach to fit situation such as schedule or problem solve.
Working memory: Mentally retain and utilize information.
Memory Retrieval: Retrieving previously learned information.
Time management: estimate time, awareness of passage of time.
Challenges of Executive Functions
Having low EF skills, or executive dysfunction, can lead to issues socially, emotionally, and academically. These students with executive function disorder do not choose to not complete tasks or not remember to bring their folder from home. They lack the mental abilities to function the same as their peers. This may be due to underdevelopment, excess stress or anxiety, or brain injury. There is also research suggesting poor EF is hereditary. The bright side is EF skills can be taught and improved upon (Logsdon, 2020) through targeted strategies and accommodations (Executive Control Network, n.d.).
Logsdon (2020) identified several signs to look for in a student you might be concerned about:
(1.) Difficulty in planning and completing projects, (2.) Problems understanding how long a project will take to complete, (3.) Struggling with telling a story in the right sequence with important details and minimal irrelevant details, (4.) Trouble communicating details in an organized, sequential manner; (5.) Problems initiating activities or tasks, or generating ideas independently; (6.) Difficulty retaining information while doing something with it such as remembering a phone number while dialing.
Executive Control Network (n.d.) explained executive function disorder is not an official disorder and it may even resemble Attention Deficit Disorder. Furthermore, intelligence is not directly related to EF either. For instance, a student with poor EF can have a high IQ, they just may not perform up to their potential.
“The key to unlocking content and ensuring a pathway to long-term memory is through executive function” (Sulla, 2018).
There are so many strategies to try with students. After a time, reevaluate if a strategy is helping. If it is, continue but if it is not, then try something else. Logsdon (2020) provided the following list:
- Give clear step-by-step instructions with visual organizational aids.
- Children with executive dysfunction may not make logical leaps to know what to do. Be as explicit as possible with instructions. Use visual models and hands-on activities when possible. Adjust your level of detail based on the student’s success.
- Use planners, organizers, computers, or timers.
- Provide visual schedules and review them at least every morning, after lunch, and in the afternoon. Review more frequently for people who need those reminders.
- Pair written directions with spoken instructions and visual models whenever possible.
- If possible, use a daily routine.
- Create checklists and “to do” lists.
- Use positive reinforcement to help kids stay on task.
- Break long assignments into smaller tasks and assign mini-timelines for completion of each. If children become overwhelmed with lists of tasks, share only a few at a time.
- Use visual calendars or wall planners to keep track of long-term assignments, deadlines, and activities.
Executive Functions are abilities that may need to be taught to certain students so they can be more successful in the classroom. Most students are not purposely sloppy or slow. They just have not been given the strategies they need to reach their full potential, yet.