January 18, 2017 by Sarah Gillie
The chances are that unless you have (or a family member has) a diagnosis detailing executive function difficulties, or you are an experienced clinical practitioner, assessor or special needs educator, you may not have heard of executive function (EF) at all. As part of a research project in the summer of 2016, I conducted an online survey of teachers to gauge their knowledge and understanding of a range of learning needs: executive function difficulty was the least well known by the 170 respondents. Research shows that students with specific learning difficulties are likely to have executive function challenges. Based on published prevalence figures it is statistically very probable that every mainstream class will include a number of pupils with executive function difficulties.
So what does it mean if executive function development is delayed? For some it might mean that certain key skills may be mastered years behind typically developing classmates. In the classroom this might manifest as difficulties in the following areas:
- Planning ahead –
- Knowing what needs to be done, and
- Knowing what tools and materials are needed to get it done
- Getting started and staying focused on a task
- Being able to adapt if circumstances change
- Knowing when to stop/when to carry on
- Understanding the ‘appropriateness’ of particular behaviours
- Being able to complete a task automatically
Children begin to display noticeable signs of executive function in action between the ages of 3 and 5. They begin to understand and anticipate what happens in different familiar situations and they start to realise that actions have consequences. At school age, blossoming executive function enables pupils to process and follow age appropriate instructions in the correct order and focus to completion. It means that they are increasingly able to keep track of their school equipment and have the right kit to hand in a given lesson or activity, that they can handle transitions between teachers, lessons and locations with relative ease, and that they are likely to be in the right place at the right time, with developing control of their emotions and impulses.
Learners whose executive function is underdeveloped are likely to have difficulties in one or more of these areas. Executive function affects school readiness, the skills needed to learn from experience or observation, focus and attention, planning and prioritising. Without support, this may significantly impact on academic outcome. Factors affecting executive function development include age, home environment, school environment, exercise, diet, health and specific learning difficulties. Anyone with signs of e.g. ADHD, autism, dyscalculia, dyslexia, dyspraxia/DCD etc. is likely to be challenged by tasks that place a load on executive function.
Executive function is believed to be controlled by the brain’s prefrontal cortex. This is the most recently evolved area of the human brain, considered to enable e.g. higher order thinking, impulse control, emotions, the foresight and hindsight necessary for efficient planning and prioritising, and complex social interaction. In short, many of the things that make us ‘human’.
There is no universally agreed definition of executive function or its aspects, but certain aspects are particularly relevant to academic learning:Figure 1. EF components based on Gioia et al, 2000
Components of executive function are sometimes described as ‘hot’, the emotional or affective strand and ‘cool’, the cognitive or effective strand.
Figure 2. EF strands based on Zelazo and Müller, 2002; Barkley, 2012
Emotions impact academic performance. A wide variety of factors including disappointment and frustration can cause upset or distraction. It is difficult for a student to get started on a task if they are distracted, so educators and parents must limit potential distractors.
When a student with executive function difficulties works hard to focus on a set task, they are likely to use a huge amount of energy. As well as causing physical exhaustion beyond what would normally be expected for the task, this may take its toll emotionally. If the lesson or activity has placed a heavy load on working memory, focus and other aspects of executive function will begin to be impacted, as will the quantity and quality of the work produced.
A student with executive function difficulties will not always be where he (or she) is meant to be. They might have their pencil case, but they probably won’t have all of the things needed to complete the task in hand. They may not start the task without prompting, and it’s likely that it won’t all get done. You know it’s not deliberate bad behaviour, but it has an impact on the student’s learning and self-esteem, and possibly on other class members or the smooth running of lessons. What is important to understand is that support is possible and practicable, and it can improve learning for the whole class. The same techniques may not work in every situation, and some strategies are more appropriate to the classroom, whereas others are helpful for independent projects or in homework situations.
The manifestation of executive function difficulties will be as individual as each student. Nevertheless, teachers and parents can improve environmental factors, make adjustments to support cognitive needs and provide management strategies. As ever, early intervention is highly desirable and most effective, but positive change is possible at any stage. Remember that appropriate support can have a huge impact on social and emotional as well as academic outcomes.
The good news is that parents and teachers can work with students to promote the development and use of strategies to minimise working memory overload and develop executive function skills and workarounds. But that’s another article.
This article is based on a training presentation designed for schools and parents.
Barkley, R. (2012) Executive Functions: What They Are, How They Work, and Why They Evolved. New York: The Guilford Press.
Diamond, A. (2013) ‘Executive Functions’ Annual Review of Psychology, 64 pp. 135-168
Best, R., Miller, P., and Naglieri, J. (2011) ‘Relations between executive function and academic achievement from ages 5 to 17 in a large, representative national sample’ Learning and Individual Differences, 21 (4), pp. 327-336
Gioia, G., Isquith, P., Guy, S., and Kenworthy, L. (2000) Behavior rating inventory of executive function (BRIEF). Odessa: Psychological Assessment Resources.
McCloskey, G. Perkins, L.A., & Divner, B.V. (2009) Assessment and intervention for executive function difficulties. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis Group, LLC.
Zelazo, P. and Müller, U. (2010) ‘Executive function in typical and atypical development.’ in Goswami, U. (ed.) The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Childhood Cognitive Development, Second edition. Oxford: John Wiley and Sons Ltd., pp.574-603