Director's Corner: On Executive Functioning

Understanding the importance of good executive skills and how to promote them is so crucial for academic and life-long success that we have decided this week to re-run a column on Executive Functioning written in April 2012. Executive Functioning refers to the mental processes involved in analyzing situations, recalling past knowledge, making plans, prioritizing, setting goals, organizing ideas and resources, contrasting strategies before adopting them and changing course of action midway if necessary, in short supervising and managing our thinking. Smooth executive functioning allows us to notice cues, wait for one's turn, predict implications, focus and maintain attention, keep track of time, attend to several things at once, reflect on one's actions and ideas.

Poor executive functioning results in difficulties in any or all of the above and is often the cause for poor self-regulation skills and poor self-esteem. If one does not understand what went wrong and how to move forward, one gets easily "stuck" and appears reactive and inflexible. And if one cannot prioritize, one gets easily overwhelmed and discouraged by long-term projects.

Because executive function, being connected with the frontal lobe, takes a long time to develop, all children experience various degrees of difficulty with executive skills. In fact, as much as your favorite teenager will hate to hear, executive function is still developing until the mid-20s, hence the problems with impulsivity, blindness to consequences, and addiction that tend to plague young adults. Like other aspects of a child development, it is not always obvious to determine whether organizational difficulties, for instance, will resolve themselves in due time or need to be actively tackled.

Various degrees of deficit in executive skills are typical in such diagnosed conditions as ADHD or Autism and frequent in some learning disabilities. However, more people without than with a disability suffer from executive skills weaknesses. These can be extremely debilitating, cause great disadvantage academically, socially and in the work place, and, to add insult to injury, be mistaken for lack of effort or lack of motivation.

So, executive functioning problems are a big deal. In the classroom, they can manifest themselves in:

  • poor reading comprehension, as one typically needs to recall prior knowledge, put things in perspective, draw inferences and, often, call on personal experience
  • writing difficulties, as one needs to plan, organize, assess and revise documents
  • chronic difficulties with time management
  • particularly strong reluctance in focusing on tasks perceived as uninteresting
  • behavior problems, stemming from difficulties handling frustration and difficulties anticipating consequences

Examples of what Magnolia teachers routinely do to help "train" executive skills:

  • use visual timers
  • post assignments schedules
  • use indirect prompts ("Where should you be?")
  • coach students in problem-solving
  • discuss multiple word meanings
  • encourage different ways to solve a given math problem
  • provide checklists for self-editing and peer-editing
  • provide checklists for assignments that break them down in steps with intermediate deadlines
  • teach note-taking strategies
  • periodically reorganize cubbies
  • assist students in putting in their backpack what they need for homework assignments
  • research new strategies

What parents need to do to help on the home front:

  • recognize that all children need help with planning, prioritizing, reflecting, self-regulating, and provide such help.
  • always assume that their child would if their child could, and continue providing help even when feeling he/she "should know better by now".
  • discuss with their child's teacher the best type of help to provide when it comes to homework; doing a child's work should not be an option, but providing a framework, brainstorming along with the child, breaking down the process, thinking aloud, creating a schedule are usually useful strategies.

Remember that children who clearly have difficulties with executive function need more help than what they can get during their time at school. Home support is essential for remediation.