Executive function is a set of cognitive skills that are essential for us to set goals, plan, and complete tasks. Executive function has three main areas. These are:
1) Working memory. This allows short-term memory retention. Working memory may then help transfer this information into long-term memory.
2) Flexible thinking. This is the ability to switch gears quickly and find new ways to solve problems.
3) Inhibitory control. This is the ability to control impulsive responses that hinder individuals from completing a goal. An example of this would be a student ignoring conversations in the background while he/she is studying for an exam.
Executive function assists in many life skills, such as:
- Paying attention
- Planning, organizing, and prioritizing tasks
- Staying focused on a task until completion
- Understanding an issue from different points of view
- Managing emotions
- Keeping track of tasks
While we are not born with executive function skills, these can be developed with practice. Executive functions start to develop by age two and are fully realized by age 30. It’s crucial to develop these skills and identify difficulties early on as executive dysfunction could ultimately affect an individual’s chances of success later in life. The lack of executive function skills is often linked to ADHD and other learning differences; students might struggle to keep track of their belongings, manage their schedules, organize their thoughts, prioritize and complete tasks, forget what they just heard or read, panic when routines change, or get overly fixated or emotional about things don’t go as planned.
Supporting students struggling with executive dysfunction
Currey Ingram Academy is a private school in Brentwood that recognizes the importance of executive function development. Their highly-trained faculty and staff take on a collaborative approach towards helping students improve in this area. Here are some of their recommended activities and strategies to help develop executive function skills:
- Give clear, step-by-step instructions. Support verbal instructions with written directions and visual aids. Students struggling with executive function skills might not be able to make logical leaps and know what to do next. Adjust the level of detail based on the student's success.
- Use planners, wall calendars, or mobile apps to keep track of assignments, project deadlines, and activities. Take time to explore what system works best.
Create visual schedules and to-do lists. Review these throughout the day.
- Stick to a daily routine as much as possible.
- Use positive reinforcement to encourage students to see a task through.
- Break major assignments into smaller tasks and create mini-timelines for the completion of each. Share only a few tasks at a time if students have the tendency to be easily overwhelmed.
- Maintain an organized room and study area.
- Consider having separate areas with complete sets of supplies for different activities; students won’t have to waste time looking for what they need.
- Keep strategies consistent whether you’re in school or at home. Students with executive functioning issues are more likely to do well when their routines are more or less similar across different environments or activities.
Remember that these strategies impact each student differently. If no progress is made after a reasonable amount of time, you might need to try other alternatives. Older students might be able to identify which strategies are effective; make sure to take their preferences into account.
Executive dysfunction awareness is just as important as finding a solution. Make sure family members, peers, and community members know its symptoms and that these are not mistaken for laziness or misbehavior.
A private school in Brentwood, Currey Ingram Academy supports and empowers students with learning differences to achieve their fullest potential - academically and socially - within an environment that fosters holistic student development. Get in touch by calling (615) 507-3173.