Executive Functions: What Does It Mean? Why Is It Important? Does My Child Need Help? What Can Make a Difference.

Mon. 01/06/2020

Over the last 20 years, there has been a tremendous amount of research devoted to understanding the cognitive abilities responsible for school success. These innate abilities are called executive functions; they control a person’s ability to stay focused, plan ahead, strategize, and recall information. Some students come by these skills naturally, while others need more support.

The Summit School is pleased to host its January Community Talk: Executive Functions and School Achievement.  Dr. Joan Mele-McCarthy will discuss how executive functions affect school achievement. Parents and teachers will learn strategies to help struggling students.

Executive function difficulties – What does it mean?

Children who have executive dysfunction have a difficult time adapting to the teaching styles and rules of different teachers, conceptualizing, planning and implementing a research report (even a simple book report), and performing tasks that have multiple layers (such as spontaneous writing and the need to integrate knowledge in spelling, capitalization/punctuation, sentence structure and handwriting).  Often children with executive functions difficulties become very frustrated because they “can’t do school” despite their ability to understand the concepts taught in the moment they are taught.

Many children with executive dysfunction present with academic, social, or behavioral difficulties that do not qualify them for Special Education Services. These children:

  • Exhibit mild to extreme disorganization;
  • Are often described as lazy, unmotivated, unable to get work done, confused;
  • May have disorganized expressive oral and written language;
  • Often have academic difficulties that often don’t appear until upper elementary school grades or middle school even though a child was successful in the early grades;
  • Frequently present with anxiety issues despite seemingly grade level skills.

Knowing when a child needs help.

There are specific hallmarks of executive dysfunctions. Some, or several, of the following list may be evident in a child (or adult):

  • Difficulty with working memory;
  • Easily distracted by external or internal stimuli;
  • Perseveration of a response that is not necessarily correct or result in successful completion of a task;
  • Difficulty with initiating activity;
  • Difficulty maintaining effort;
  • Difficulty recognizing and/or utilizing feedback;
  • Difficulty modulating activity without cues from someone;
  • Poor self-awareness of deficits.

If you are wondering if your child needs help improving their executive functioning skills, take this quick quiz by answering “yes” or “no” to the following questions. Does your child:

  • Regularly struggle to start tasks?
  • Keep a messy room and a disorganized backpack, locker, or desk?
  • Have difficulty following instructions, especially with many steps?
  • Fail to complete assignments unless he’s constantly reminded?
  • Forget to turn in homework even when it’s completed?
  • Lose things regularly, from coat to books?
  • Have difficulty planning long-term assignments?

If you answered “yes” to the majority of these questions, your child may lack the internal cognitive structure and strategies necessary for school success.

What test can be used to determine executive dysfunction?

There is no one test for executive function. Rather, evaluation of executive functions gathers information from a variety of assessments.  Four major components of assessment are recommended: oral language, intellectual, academic achievement and social-emotional.

  1. Assessment of oral language skills includes assessment of oral language organization, word retrieval, vocabulary, verbal working memory and sentence structure.
  2. Intellectual assessment includes verbal and nonverbal reasoning, working memory, processing speed and attention. Additionally, tasks that measure planning, flexibility of thinking, and problem solving are necessary.  Parent, teacher, and student interviews and questionnaire responses reveal important information about how the child functions at home and school.
  3. Academic achievement testing includes reading decoding and comprehension, spelling, writing composition, mathematics and content area knowledge (i.e., social studies, science), and ability to use academic skills quickly and accurately.
  4. Issues related to social-emotional functioning will also need to be assessed to determine whether the child displays frustration, anxiety and/or depression.

How can executive dysfunction be helped in school?

There are different ways schools support students who struggle with executive functions. The classroom environment is key. Classroom supports that may help include:

  • explicit organizational systems in place that are consistently adhered to day to day and from classroom to classroom
  • small group assistance for writing
  • help maintaining on-task behavior
  • use of a math journal that lists steps for math procedures.

A cue-rich classroom is also important:  verbal reminders, visual cues, lists, and alarms on electronics to help students remember to do tasks or maintain a schedule.  Keep routines, procedures, lesson formats, predictable and consistent.

Instructional methods are also important. Teach new skills systematically and explicitly such as phonics for reading and specific steps in the writing process with visual cues (charts).  Provide many opportunities for guided practice, and when a unit is completed, review skills to ensure skills are maintained. Incorporate technology: word processing, electronic document filing, word prediction software, podcasts, and books on CD.

Often, students who struggle with executive functions receive accommodations in all classes, which are determined by the school’s Child Study Team.

How can parents help their child with executive dysfunction?

Three main characteristics of an executive function friendly home environment are structure, acceptance, and accountability.

Structure means that organization and time management are part of home life. Routines are important.  Without routines, children are more disorganized and stressed.  Teach your child to prepare ahead such as laying out their clothes and packing their book bag at night.  Avoid scheduling so many after school and evening activities that it becomes impossible to manage the must do’s.  Teach list-making for things like chores or packing suitcases.

Organized homes make time management easier.  List daily schedules for chores, homework, etc.  If there are changes in the schedule, discuss ahead of time.   Use a calendar to provide a visual display of upcoming events.

Accept your child’s “executive profile.”  This is not a problem to be fixed or cured.  You adapt, modify, circumvent and work as a family team, which in turn can build strengths and confidence. When children understand themselves and their “work-arounds”, their confidence improves, and they will be more successful with personal accountability.

More Information

The Summit School offers a variety of resources for those looking for information about executive functions.

Community Talk Series – Learn more about learning differences and the resources available to your child.

Executive Functions and School Achievement

  • January 7, 2020
  • Dr. Joan Mele-McCarthy, CCC-SLP, Affiliated Research Scientist at Haskins Laboratories
  • 7:00 – 8:30 pm
  • The Summit School, 664 Central Avenue East, Edgewater, MD 21037
  • To RSVP, click here.

Community Talks are open to the public and free of charge.  For a list of Community Talks, please click here.

Summer at Summit – Summit’s Executive Function Camp will help your child learn to plan, organize, strategize, manage time, pay attention to and remember details. These are the skills that help students plan for future assignments, sustain attention to tasks, and stay organized. For more information about summer programs click here or contact Nancy Rhodes at .

About The Summit School – The Summit School was founded to serve children, grades 1-8, with dyslexia and other learning differences. Summit has an incredible record of helping children become successful learners. The core of Summit’s program incorporates: highly trained teachers, researched-based instruction, hands-on, multi-sensory learning environments and low teacher-student ratios. For more information about The Summit School and Summit Resource Center please visit www.thesummitschool.org.

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