What are Executive Functions?
Executive functions are brain-based cognitive skills that facilitate critical thinking and self-regulation. Executive functions call upon the prefrontal cortex of our brains to help with goal-setting and decision making. These skills include flexibility, focus, organization, planning, self-awareness, self-control, time management, and working memory. You can learn more about these individual skills and how they are developed through play here.
Problems with Executive Functions
Many children have difficulties with one or more executive functions. In fact, most people who struggle with executive functioning are never “diagnosed” with a problem but simply see it as an area of weakness for them. In today’s complicated, and disconcerting world, deficits in these skills can cause problems in managing one’s life and getting things done efficiently.
Children with psychiatric issues, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder; learning disabilities; and problems in social, emotional, and behavioral functioning, often display impairments in their use of executive functions. They may display difficulties in getting started on tasks, sustaining attention and effort levels, following multi-step directions, staying organized, and managing time effectively. It is important to note that many children will display executive strengths in certain areas and dysfunctions in others. These differences can often be explained by both biological and environmental factors.
Executive functioning difficulties are often undiagnosed in many children, but their problems are usually identifiable through school. Children with executive functioning difficulties often manifest as Alternative Learners, or students who struggle in traditional classrooms.
Executive Functions at School
A number of executive skills are easily identifiable as being crucial to classroom success. For example, the executive skills of Organization and Planning help students to write down their homework, remember to do it, and return it to class the next day. Executive skills such as task initiation, sustained attention, and task persistence are necessary for starting and completing long-term projects.
Executive functions are also directly related to the development of many academic skills. For example, Working Memory skills, used when a child is able to keep different sounds of a word in mind while sounding it out, are necessary for word-decoding. Working Memory skills are also required for reading comprehension, when a child needs to keep in mind what has occurred in previous sentences and then integrate this information in order to achieve a cohesive understanding of the text. Executive functions play a role in other academic tasks, including reading fluency, written content, math computations, and note-taking.
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