A complex variety of mental skills that we use on a daily basis to achieve our goals, executive function can be considered the “CEO of the brain.” Executive function as a whole allows each of us to set goals; plan how to complete a project; prioritize tasks; organize time, materials and information; shift approaches flexibly; and hold and manipulate information in working memory and control their behaviors for task completion. Therefore, there is a strong correlation between effective executive function and success in school.
Executive function continues to develop in the prefrontal cortex of the brain until at least the age of 25, which is why we often work with college students, too. Executive function issues often go hand-in-hand with ADHD, but many students without ADHD struggle with them as well.
Executive function may be better understood as a 6-step process:
- Analyze a task. Figure out what needs to be done.
- Plan how to handle the task.
- Get organized. Break down the plan into a series of steps.
- Figure out how much time is needed to carry out the plan, and set aside the time.
- Make adjustments as needed.
- Finish the task in the time allotted.
While all children are developing their executive function, some children have notable and specific weaknesses. Regardless of how bright these students are, they struggle to do schoolwork and successfully manage tasks. That’s where a skilled and master teacher or learning specialist can assist with targeted, explicit instruction, or coaching.
To practice the skills under the umbrella of executive function, we often work with our clients using schoolwork or real-life tasks. These authentic tasks are typically more engaging for students and lead to a deeper understanding of the strategic process. The task itself is just an opportunity to practice the lifelong skills the student is working to master. These include:
- Initiating and completing tasks
- Managing time and possessions
- Prioritizing (and re-prioritizing in real time)
- Transitioning between tasks and locations
- Thinking flexibly to solve real life problems
- Controlling impulses and emotions
- Engaging in tasks requiring short-term, long-term, and working memory
We often use assistive technologies, visual timers, analog clocks, modified planners, and a variety of organizers, tools, and strategies to help students better manage their work. The abstract concept of time can be a major obstacle for students challenged with time management. Some students only think about time as “counting up [ticking up],” rather than also “counting down [ticking down].” Making this leap is critical to managing tasks within set time parameters. At My Learning Springboard, our practices are shaped by our Leadership Team’s years of teaching and special education experience in fully inclusive classroom settings, as well as by the work of Sarah Ward, the renowned Language and Speech Therapist who specializes in working with children with executive function challenges.
When our educators talk with parents, psychologists, learning specialists, and school faculty, we often discuss the following signs of executive dysfunction as they apply to a specific student. These discussions lead to creative brainstorming in order to customize an approach that will be manageable in each situation. Some hallmarks of executive function challenges that are often seen with our students are:
- Losing or forgetting important items on a regular basis
- Being unable to visualize and maintain a clean room, desk, or locker
- Interrupting tasks to gather necessary items
Time management difficulties:
- Struggling to be on time due to disorganization or poor planning
- Difficulty moving from one task to the next in a timely manner
- Finding it difficult to figure out how to get started on and complete a task in an allotted time frame
- Struggling to interpret multi-step directions
- Focusing on small details or the overall picture, but not on both at the same time
- Having trouble figuring out how much time a task realistically requires
- Doing things either quickly, messily, and often incorrectly, or slowly and incompletely
Struggling to perform in school:
- Difficulty memorizing facts, digesting important information, organizing thoughts in writing, solving multi-step problems, and completing and turning in homework in a timely fashion
- Finding it difficult to incorporate feedback into work or an activity
- Difficulty transitioning to a new plan, even when it’s clear that the current plan isn’t working
- Having trouble paying attention and being easily distracted
- Losing a train of thought when interrupted
- Needing to be told the directions numerous times
- Having trouble making decisions
- Lacking the words to explain something in detail
- Needing help processing what something feels/sounds/looks like
- Having trouble with higher order thinking
If you think that your child or college student is experiencing difficulty with any of the executive function abilities listed above, please do not hesitate to contact our office to discuss your child’s situation and needs in more detail. Difficulty with executive function can hold many students back from the success they could otherwise achieve in school and beyond. No matter at what point the situation is addressed, there are myriad ways in which to help children, or adults for that matter, become more effective at everything they do. Our team of highly skillful teachers is ready to help!
To learn more about Executive Function, download Executive Function 101, a free e-book by the National Center for Learning Disabilities. Additional resources are available for purchase at The Research Institute for Learning and Development.