Executive Functions

Executive Functions are the skills we use to manage our own learning. Crucial to success in academic, professional and inter-personal pursuits, they are at the heart of our ability to plan and organize ourselves, initiate work and monitor progress on projects. Many students struggle with one or more executive function skills, leading to poor academic performance and decreased self-esteem. As a result, students who may otherwise find inspiration or develop a passion in a particular subject shut down and turn away from their studies. And, in the case of students who struggle to grasp subject content, executive function deficits can make it difficult if not impossible for them to find their footing.

An important first step in addressing and remedying executive function deficits turns upon recognizing the broad spectrum of executive function skills students need to succeed. Without this understanding, well-intentioned members of a student’s learning team may resort to standard approaches that do not recognize or address students’ unique executive function strength and vulnerability profiles. Not all executive function difficulties, for example, can be remedied through the use of planners or calendars. Instead, students often require individualized executive function intervention programs focused on one or more of the following skills:

  • Inhibition: the ability to control impulses appropriately so one can stop behavior at the appropriate time. Students with inhibition problems have difficulty “putting on the brakes.”  They act without thinking and react in ways that interfere with their work.
  • Emotional modulation: the ability to control emotional responses. A student who struggles with emotional control may become overly frustrated and angry while doing work. They also may become anxious, overwhelmed and “shut down.”
  • Initiation: the ability to start a task or activity, as well as generate ideas, responses and problem solving strategies. Students with initiation problems may have difficulty starting a task or generating ideas even when they sincerely want to.
  • Shifting: the ability to move freely from one activity or cognitive set to another. This requires the ability to make transitions, switch attention, and change focus or direction as needed. Students with shifting problems get stuck on one task or topic.
  • Working memory: the ability to hold information in mind for the purpose of completing a task. Students need working memory to carry out multi-step activities, do mental arithmetic, or follow directions.
  • Planning: includes many critical components, such as anticipating events, setting goals, and envisioning the overall framework of a task.
  • Organizing: includes breaking goals down into steps that represent the most effective method of accomplishing that end. This involves reviewing prior experiences in completing similar tasks.
  • Managing materials: the ability to organize workspaces, materials, and possessions so that they are “functional” for task needs.
  • Time management: allotting time efficiently and flexibly for task completion.
  • Self-checking: involves checking work for mistakes, editing and being sure one is on task. Effective self-checking means being able to check back to see if the work is accomplishing the goal, or if one needs to shift approaches.
  • Self-awareness: involves monitoring one’s own reactions and the impact of one’s behavior on others.
  • Self-advocacy: involves identifying your own needs, identifying support resources, and communicating your needs to these resources.