- What are executive functions?
- Why are they important?
- When do they develop?
- How do they connect with learning differences?
- What can parents do?
What are executive functions?
Executive function is a set of brain based skills required for us to effectively execute, or perform tasks and solve problems. They include working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. We use these skills every day to learn, work, and manage daily life.
Everyone has executive functions and they vary for every person. Everyone has strengths and challenges with their own executive functions.
11 Sub-Skills of Executive Function
Below will give a brief explanation of each executive function skill.
Response inhibition– to think before you act
Working Memory– to hold information in memory while completing a complex task or draw on past learning and apply it to the current situation
Emotional Control– the ability to manage emotions (not fly off the handle!)
Sustained Attention– to pay attention to something despite fatigue or boredom
Task Initiation– to begin a project without procrastination and in a timely fashion
Planning and Prioritization-to create a plan to reach a goal and make decisions about what is essential and delete the irrelevant information.
Organization– to be able to keep track of information or materials
Time Management– to estimate how much time one has and stay within time limits and deadlines
Goal-Directed Persistence– to have a goal and follow through to the end and resist distractions along the way
Flexibility– to revise plans despite setbacks or obstacles or to adapt to changing situations.
Metacognition– think about your thinking and to be able to look at yourself and how you problem solve. To ask yourself: “How am I doing?” “What do I need to do differently?”
Why are they important?
Trouble with executive function can make it hard to manage at school
- hard to focus,
- follow directions,
- handle emotions,
- starting tasks
- poor time management
- managing changes in plans,
- work towards a goal
When do they develop?
Ages 6 -12 months
- Response inhibition
- Working Memory
- Emotional Control
- Sustained Attention
- Task Initiation
- Planning and Prioritization
In their 20’s
- Time Management
- Goal-Directed Persistence
Children with learning differences can develop their executive functions later.
How do they connect with learning differences?
Learning differences is a way to explain how someone thinks and processes information a different way. These people also will have a unique set of executive functions. For example, some dyslexics can manage through primary school because of their strong visual memory and ability to be able to focus, even when it is difficult for them. However, at high school with the increased workload plus having to plan their school work, organise themselves and schoolwork and manage their time their coping strategies aren’t working well anymore.
If a student is anxious about their learning (very common for a child with learning differences) this reduces the efficiency of their executive functioning as well.
What can parents do?
Have realistic expectations. Remember we have fully developed executive functions and our children are still developing.
What supports students with learning differences also supports executive functions.
Support executive function development
- create routines
- use visual checklists to complete tasks
- reduce distractions to help focus on homework
- role model thinking skills out loud when faced with a problem
- focus on one task at a time
- break down tasks into smaller chunks
- use a timer to support focusing on a task eg 10 minutes