Executive Function


Executive functions (Explained in more detail here: EF – an introduction) develop from early childhood and are seen as key predictors of academic outcome and life chances in the modern world. I discussed how EF difficulties might present or be supported in the classroom in EF and Learning – Classroom Survival.

Some students with underdeveloped EF find the demands of school overwhelming from the very start, whereas for others, classroom routines, resources and support can be a benefit. In both cases, homework is likely to pose a challenge, particularly as they grow older, since such independent tasks place significant burden on EF.

When a child or young person has underdeveloped EF they

  • May respond then forget to come
  • May start a task then do something else (e.g. start playing with something that caught their eye while dressing, no matter whether it’s cold or time for school, etc.)
  • Needs help to pack/unpack/check own schoolbag to an ‘age-appropriate’ level
  • Rarely ready for school or outings on time
  • Unable to independently remember instructions or kit
  • Needs supervision or support for activities that others manage confidently and safely

Where homework is concerned this could manifest as e.g.

  • Not remembering what has been set, or even whether anything has been set
  • Writing down what is to be done but not remembering the instructions
  • Forgetting necessary equipment at school
  • Requiring repeated and significant prompts to make a start
  • Losing time to daydreaming and distraction
  • Forgetting what to do next (steps missing or work done out of sequence)
  • Running out of time or missing out on other activities so that work gets finished

As with classroom behaviours noted previously, each of these might be seen in any learner from time to time. For EF impacted students, these interruptions are likely to be frequent and rarely isolated, with the result that on any given day, parents might be calling school or classmate’s parents to find out what the assignment is, asking for a scan to be emailed, possibly trying to find out from other parents what their child’s version of the instructions is etc. And all of this while dealing with, say, a younger child, dinner, preparations for the following day, etc. Older students may be able to get friends to remind/explain/message them a phone photo, assuming that they remember to ask in time…

In fact, so much time can be lost to distraction, procrastination and parental efforts to ensure every activity is completed, that homework tasks take up vastly longer than any teacher would expect, with the result that there is no time left for relaxation, play or independent, self-chosen research and learning. The result can be a learner arriving at school full of apprehension for the day ahead, worried that they could not complete the set work and, although they may have forgotten to bring it to class and hand it in, they will probably remember how frustrated and unhappy the task left them.


So what can we do to help?

Teachers need to make sure that the task really supports the intended learning outcome, and consider whether the same can be learnt through an activity with fewer demands on EF. If your school has a virtual learning environment (VLE), can detailed instructions and resources be made available online, with a clear deadline? If this is not possible, can students use a mobile device or laptop to photograph homework prompts? Where appropriate, a template might be provided, and where necessary, more detailed instructions with steps, like a homework recipe card. This may sound like a lot of work for a teacher, and it is, but it’s adaptable and reusable, and the time taken to produce such prompts and props is saved by not having to repeat and remind. The benefits will outweigh the costs. If students are expected to copy homework requirements, can stickers or labels be available to be stuck into their diary or planner? These options would require support for the habit to develop, starting from the basics of giving out the labels, instructions or templates, or reminding them to take a snapshot. This would need to be handled with great sensitivity and might entail the label or photo option being available to all students, at least in the short term.

Parents and carers can start by ensuring that all teachers are aware of diagnosed learning needs. If you are unable to speak to them all or email directly, and contact is limited to a class teacher or form tutor, or a head or SENCo or ALNCo, ask them how they will ensure that all teachers will be made aware, and how they will promote professionally recommended strategies. If you are still at the pre-diagnosis stage, make sure that the clinician or assessor is aware of your concerns, your perception of support needs and your hopes for their professional recommendations.

snackAt home, try to develop a routine that works for you. This might be a snack and a drink and a short period of down-time before settling to work. If there’s an activity straight after school on one or more days, have a routine that works for those days – it might work best to have two different routines, or to make every day the same, depending on the time taken, the location of the activity and your family’s situation. Set a time for the task – most schools will provide guidelines in a school handbook, on their website, or in a parent information session. If they suggest 30 minutes, then stop after 30 minutes. If one task takes 20 minutes, don’t add an extra 10 minutes onto the next task. It’s important for teachers to know if their homework is not pitched at the right level, and for them to understand what each learner is able to achieve in the given time, either independently, or with parental support.


As well as accommodations like these that can be introduced at home and school to reduced the burden on EF, there are strategies that can be trialled and implemented so that students can begin to tackle tasks with greater confidence and independence. Let’s look at that next.

Further reading:

Dawson, P., and Guare, R. (2009) Smart but Scattered. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Gathercole, S.E., & Alloway, T.P. (2008) Working Memory & Learning: A practical guide for teachers. London, UK: SAGE publications, Ltd.

Kaufman, C. (2010) Executive Function in the Classroom. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Meltzer, L. (ed.) (2007) Executive Function in Education: From theory to practice. New York, NY: The Guilford Press

Moraine, P. (2012) Helping Students Take Control of Everyday Executive Functions. London, UK: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Moyes, R. (2014) Executive Function “Dysfunction” Strategies for Educators and Parents. Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

More blogs on executive function can be found here:

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