What is Executive Functioning?
Executive functioning refers to the cognitive processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. It includes skills like working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control. Students rely on these skills to regulate their behaviour, organise their thoughts, and problem-solve.
Executive functioning skills start developing in early childhood and continue maturing into a person’s 20s and 30s. These skills are crucial for success in school and life. Students with poorer executive functioning may struggle with the following:
- Paying attention and avoiding distractions
- Organising their schoolwork and managing time
- Planning and prioritising tasks
- Getting started on and completing work
- Regulating emotions and behaviour
Research shows that executive functioning gaps are common in disorders like ADHD, autism, and dyslexia. Any child can struggle with aspects of executive functioning due to high-stress levels, trauma, or simply needing more time to mature.
Why Executive Function Matters in School
Executive skills allow students to:
- Focus, process information, and shift approaches
- Plan shortand long-term assignments
- Organise materials and thoughts coherently
- Initiate work and stay on track to complete it
- Monitor their own progress and adapt as needed
- Manage frustration, control impulses, and solve social problems
Without strong executive skills, students will struggle to actively engage in lessons, follow directions, keep track of materials, retain content, do homework, study for tests, and more. Weak executive functioning can mimic issues with motivation, comprehension, memory or behaviour.
Identifying Gaps in Executive Functioning Skills
The following are signs a student may be struggling with executive functioning but some are just part of being a child or teenager!
- Poor impulse control and emotional regulation
- Messy and disorganised schoolwork and desks
- Forgetfulness of materials, instructions or deadlines
- Failure to check work for completion and accuracy
- Difficulty planning, prioritising or sequencing tasks
- Trouble starting or finishing work promptly
- Lacking strategies for solving problems independently
Use questionnaires, behaviour rating scales, formal tests, and observation to pinpoint areas of weakness. Compare school and home observations for consistency across settings. To pinpoint areas of weakness, you can use questionnaires, behaviour rating scales, formal tests, and observation. You can also compare school and home observations for consistency across settings. It is important to partner with parents to get a comprehensive view of the child’s needs.
What are these methods used for?
- Questionnaires: Questionnaires can be used to gather information about the child’s behaviour, academic performance, and social skills.
- Behaviour rating scales: Behavior rating scales are used to assess the severity of specific behaviours.
- Formal tests: Formal tests are used to measure the child’s cognitive, academic, and language skills.
- Observation: Observation can be used to assess the child’s behaviour in different settings, such as at home, at school, and in the community.
Strategies to Support Executive Skills
- Post visual schedules and consistent class routines
- Allow movement breaks to recharge mental focus
- Designate areas for quiet work and group work
- Use checklists and organisation systems for materials
- Provide fidget items to occupy hands
- Give step-by-step instructions, modelled routines
- Present information in multiple ways
- Provide written/visual aids and study guides
- Break longer learning activities into chunks
- Allow alternate response options besides writing
Time Management Approaches
- Use timers, clocks, visual schedules of tasks/days
- Prompt students to allocate time for each assignment section
- Teach estimating time needs, prioritising steps, and meeting deadlines
Organisation Techniques for Executive Functioning
- Color code materials by subject or type
- Use assignment notebooks, planners, and reminders
- Have students track assignments on calendars
- Use checklists for project steps and material needs
Emotional & Behaviour Regulation
- Teach self-monitoring strategies
- Provide low arousal calm-down areas and social stories
- Offer sensory tools like stress balls and headphones
- Role play emotional scenarios and problem solving
Goal Setting & Self-Monitoring
- Set goals with students for what to accomplish
- Create individual behaviour report cards
- Have students self-evaluate work against a simple rubric
- Discuss executive skill growth areas with students
- Recognise and praise effort and strategy use
Developing Executive Functioning Skills Schoolwide
At a strategic school wide level, leaders can develop policies and practices that can enhance all students’ executive skills include:
- Explicitly teaching and modelling EF and social skills
- Providing EF interventions and accommodations
- Ensuring staff are trauma-informed
- Offering visual support tools in all classes
- Providing training to staff on promoting Executive Functioning skills
While some students have more significant needs, all students can benefit from direct instruction, models, and support around executive skill development. With a multi-tiered approach, schools can fully promote executive functioning.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Executive Functioning
What is executive functioning?
Executive functioning refers to the cognitive processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. It includes skills like working memory, mental flexibility, impulse control, and organisation.
What are some examples of executive functioning skills?
Some critical skills include:
- Working memory holding information in mind and using it to complete a task
- Inhibitory control resisting temptations or impulsive behaviour
- Shifting between tasks or thoughts flexibly
- Emotional control managing emotions and behaviour appropriately
- Planning and prioritising
- Organising materials and thoughts
- Time management
- Task initiation
- Self-monitoring checking work and progress
When do executive functioning skills develop?
Executive functioning begins developing in early childhood and continues maturing into a person’s 20s and 30s. The prefrontal cortex of the brain, responsible for complex cognitive tasks, develops throughout adolescence and into adulthood.
Why are executive functioning skills important for children?
Executive functioning skills allow children to regulate behaviour, pay attention, retain and apply new information, plan and organize schoolwork, and problem-solve. Strong executive skills lead to greater success academically and socially.
What disorders are associated with executive functioning deficits?
Poor executive functioning is common in disorders like ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, learning disabilities, OCD, and PTSD. However, any child can struggle with aspects of executive functioning.
What are the signs of executive functioning difficulties in children?
Signs may include poor emotional control, disorganization, inability to begin or complete tasks, lack of planning, problems prioritizing and managing time, forgetfulness, difficulty staying on topic, and inflexible thinking.
What can schools do to support executive functioning?
Schools can provide organizational systems, modify instruction and assignments to meet needs, allow movement breaks, teach executive skills explicitly, offer alternate response options, use visual aids, and promote emotional regulation.
What strategies can help improve executive functioning at home?
Strategies like visual schedules, timers, checklists, organization systems, written/picture cues, minimizing clutter, breaking tasks into steps, rewarding effort, and practising following instructions can help build executive skills.
Are there resources to help with executive functioning difficulties?
There are occupational therapists, school psychologists, specialists, executive functioning coaching services, and books that can provide support. Apps and assistive technology tools are also available.
Do executive functioning difficulties lead to lifelong challenges?
With early support, appropriate interventions, accommodations, and continued skill building, many individuals make major improvements in executive functioning over time. However, deficits may persist into adulthood depending on the severity.
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Shaul, S., and Schwartz, M. (2014). The role of the executive functions in school readiness among preschool-age children. Reading and Writing, 27 (4), 749–768.
Ferrier, D.E., Bassett, H.H., and Denham, S.A. (2014). Relations between executive function and emotionality in preschoolers: Exploring a transitive cognition-emotion linkage. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 487.
Riggs, N.R., Greenberg, M.T., Kusche, C.A., and Pentz, M.A. (2010). The mediational role of neurocognition in the behavioral outcomes of a social-emotional prevention program in elementary school students: Effects of the PATHS curriculum. Prevention Science, 11 (1), 91–102.