Executive Function · Special Education

Simplifying executive function

This is a whistle-stop – if you’re interested to do your own research, check out this booklist, or see the research links at the end of the blog.

There’s a graphic that’s been doing the rounds for a while now. It states, somewhat alarmingly, that certain children’s and young people’s executive function (EF) development is 30% behind their peers. It’s a graphic aimed at the parents of children diagnosed with ADHD. So, it’s aimed at me. And, I guess, at my own parents!

Current thinking is that the collection of cognitive skills we have come to call EF is likely to be impaired or delayed in young people who are not neuro-typical. Current thinking, therefore, would suggest that 20-25% of us are affected (since we appear to be talking in percentages).

This is an emotive subject for me, and it’s complex. On the one hand I’m Shrek shouting about layers and trying to convey the dimensionality, both of EF and each individual and their unique situation. On the other, I want to draw a flow chart to try to illustrate what I mean, but that would be as simplistic and crass as the graphic that’s got me so riled.

Although we still have a lot to learn, we’ve known about the role of the brain’s frontal lobes in human behaviour for a couple of centuries. The pre-frontal cortex is more than the seat of EF, and EF is more than a set of functions of the PFC, but for the purposes of a short-ish blog, let’s try and keep things as uncomplicated as we can…

Based on Gioia et al. 2000

For my own research, I settled on this simplified framework, having agonised over many texts. This was not just for simplicity’s sake, but because it incorporates the major themes of other research, and because it reflects my experience as a parent, as a teacher, and as a human whose own EF was not in sync with her peers’ throughout school and undergraduate education.

To give a flavour of the range of constructs listed by EF experts, here’s a little table of examples:

Download a PDF copy

By now I’ve waffled enough to lose all but the die-hard enthusiasts, so I’ll cut to the chase.

I’m not disputing that the infernal graphic is drawn from a place of wanting to help. But I do dispute its helpfulness. We need to know our children, and those young people in our charge. By understanding each unique profile of strengths and areas for support, we can scaffold their EF. We don’t need to make excuses for ‘actions that are not age-appropriate'[sic], we need to understand and support. It’s crucial to understand that an insult to a young person’s confidence in one area will have repercussions in another. So, disappointing feedback causes distress, and work is harder when you’re upset. This is human nature, but it is magnified when EF is under pressure.

EF strands based on Zelazo and Müller, 2002; Barkley, 2012

Humans are the only only species known to have developed cognitive EF. This is believed to be the reason why humans are able to learn vicariously. It may also explain why, when EF is delayed, learning by doing and/or using multi-sensory methods to embed abstract concepts is what’s needed.

Whether you subscribe to three or thirty-three sub-constructs, I hope that by now it’s clear that not every individual who struggles with EF will have the same difficulties. And that not every aspect of EF will be identically delayed, or delayed at all. And that challenges will vary from one day to the next, based on a wide range of influencing factors. There’s a collection of tips in blog and infographic form here.

Download a PDF copy

I’m always happy to discuss EF, and my passionate belief that inclusive practice is the key to success for all, so do get in touch with questions or comments.

For more information on the early development of EF and Theory of Mind, see Carlson, S., Claxton, L. & Moses, L. (2015) The Relation Between Executive Function and Theory of Mind is More Than Skin Deep, Journal of Cognition and Development, 16:1, 186-197, DOI: 10.1080/15248372.2013.824883 and Bradford, E, Jentzsch, I. and Gomez, J. (2015) ‘From self to social cognition: theory of mind mechanisms and their relation to executive functioning’. Cognition, 138, 21-34 , https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2015.02.001

For a detailed discussion on the development of EF in early childhood, see Diamond, A. (2006) ‘The Early Development of Executive Functions’ in Bialystok, E. and Craik, F. (eds.) Lifespan cognition: Mechanisms of change New York: Oxford University Press, 70-95.

To understand the relationship between EF and academic learning, see Christopher, M., Miyake, A., Keenan, J., Pennnigton, B., DeFries, J. Wadsworth, S., Willcutt, E., and Olson, R.. (2012) Predicting word reading and comprehension with executive function and speed measures across development: A latent variable analysis, Journal of Experimental Psychology 141:3, 470-488 http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0027375 and Clements, D. Sarama, J., and Germeroth, C. (2016) ‘Learning executive function and early mathematics: Directions of causal relations’ Early Childhood Research Quarterly 36:3, 79-90 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2015.12.009

For an explanation of how how individuals develop maturity in different EF skills at different times, see Jurado, M. and Rosselli, M. (2007) The Elusive Nature of Executive Functions: A Review of our Current Understanding, Neuropsychological Review, 17:3, 213-233 DOI:10.1007/s11065-007-9040-z

For a perspective on how individual development of EF skills can vary depending on many factors, and how parents, educators and employers can help, see Moran, S and Gardner, H. (2007) “Hill, Skill and Will”: Executive Function from a Multiple Intelligences Perspective, in Meltzer, L. (ed.) Executive Function in Education – From Theory to Practice. New York: The Guilford Press, 19-38. Look beyond the debunked multiple intelligences theory and think multi-sensory learning.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.