Many of us are familiar with various learning differences such as dyslexia and dysgraphia and how they can make school very difficult for students. And even more of us are aware of the challenge ADHD presents for students in every-day life, particularly with paying attention and sustaining effort. Despite the amount of attention these diagnoses receive, there is an even more important cognitive process that can impact your child’s life: Executive Function. Let’s take a look at what this process is and how it affects your student’s performance both in and out of school.

What is Executive Function?

Executive function is a relatively new addition to the language of psychologists. Executive functions are a set of skills that help a person regulate his or her actions and resources in order to accomplish a task. Simply put, executive functions tell us to do Step 1 before we do Step 2. For instance, if you try to put your shoes on before your socks you will run into problems and have to start all over. This is a very basic example, but it shows you the importance of formulating a plan, organizing the steps to complete the plan, and then executing the plan accordingly. The more challenging the task, the more complex executive functions are necessary.

How does this affect the classroom?

The ability to establish a goal and identify the necessary steps towards accomplishing that goal are critical to academic success. In elementary school students are capable of understanding and establishing goals. At this point they may not have the ability to plan on their own, but they should begin to work on longer-term projects, such as posters and presentations (i.e., “Show and Tell). It’s not uncommon, nor worrying, if a student does not display top-level executive functions at this point as the brain is still developing. Additionally deficits in executive functions are not always present at this age since academic tasks don’t necessarily require advanced skills.

By middle- and high-school, however, executive functions are becoming increasingly important. Most students are expected to keep track of assignments, track grades, and fill out planners and organizers. Long-term projects and multi-step projects are the norm, and students who struggle with executive functions will undoubtedly struggle on these types of assignments. Executive functions are even required on Algebra questions that require mult-steps. Again, self-regulation and the ability to follow steps are a big part of executive functions. These two skills are arguably the most important skills for students to experience academic success.

How does this affect daily life?

Executive functions are not just limited to the classroom. They are also necessary to navigate life. For adults we rely on executive functions for paying bills, remembering to pick up kids at various locations, preparing Thanksgiving dinner so it all comes out on time, and sending birthday cards to all our relatives. Kids use executive functions to get dressed quickly in the morning, remember to eat breakfast before leaving the house, get to their part-time job on time, and go to bed at an appropriate time at night.

A deficit in executive functions is critical to accomplishing all of these tasks. For those who struggle with executive functions, life becomes disorganized and often leaves people feeling like they don’t have enough time to accomplish everything. Imagine planning a multi-city road trip with no map. That’s essentially what it’s like for people who struggle with executive functions. It can be confusing, exhausting, and frustrating.

How can I fix it?

As problematic a deficit in executive functions can be, there are tons of resources to help. For students in the classroom, it’s important for them to have a system of organization. They need to have a planner or calendar to help keep track of everything. Furthermore, since they typically do not have the best self-regulation skills, they must have someone to hold them accountable. Parents can do the job well, but that usually only works for elementary-school kids. Once kids are older they tend to stop listening to mom and dad. Hiring a good tutor or mentor to help with the organization is a good idea.

Outside of the classroom, students must learn to manage their time efficiently. Keeping schedules manageable with only a few activities can help alleviate the feeling of being overwhelmed. I think it’s a great idea for kids to get in the habit of writing everything down as well. Cell phones, as much of a distraction as they can be, can also be a great tool to help manage daily life. There are many apps that allow students to keep track of things, and they can even dictate them into their phones and set reminders. Again, until they learn to compensate for their deficiency they will need someone to help regulate. Mom and dad can double check things for younger kids, but as they mature into adolescence, it’s a good idea for mom and dad to help set the organization system but then allow the kid to follow through.