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What is executive function?

Chances are you’ve heard the term executive function used in one way or another recently. Put simply, executive function is a set of mental skills that help you get things done. As awareness increases, more and more parents are considering whether or not executive function struggles apply to their children. It’s a difficult question, partly because many of the symptoms can be indicators of other challenges. When a number of the related behaviors are present and alternative causes have been ruled out, it warrants taking a closer look.

Executive Function Disorder or EFD is often associated with inattention and commonly exists alongside ADHD and learning disorders like dyslexia. It can be present at birth and run in families. It may also result from a stroke or brain injury and be impacted by Alzheimer’s. The disorder can impact learners of all ages and ability levels and refers to challenges with two important processes controlled by the brain’s frontal lobe: organization and regulation. We rely on each to plan and adjust, prioritize, recall information, manage schedules and time, and consider the consequences of our actions beforehand. For students, this can impact the ability to complete everyday tasks like cleaning one’s room, setting goals, recalling assignments, planning out projects, finishing work on time, organizing details when writing or telling a story, and controlling impulses.

A closer examination may be helpful.

If a number of the behaviors listed above seem to describe your child, first consider whether or not anxiety, depression, the desire to hide work that is challenging, or other relevant factors may be the cause. Talk to your child’s teacher about the incidents that precede or follow these behaviors. For example, did your child have an argument with a friend or another upsetting experience before seeming distracted and unable to recall information? Is most homework turned in late or only assignments in a particular subject or task? Does the incomplete project involve stepping outside the child’s comfort zone, such as being required to share in front of the class or school afterwards?

If the answer to any of the questions above is “yes”, then the root of the problem may be emotional instead of executive function disorder. Medical issues, such as seizure disorders, brain injury, and hearing problems can also produce similar behaviors. However, if no alternate cause is determined, more information may be needed.

Psychologists and neuropsychologists can administer neuropsychological evaluations to help determine if an individual has EFD. The process may involve observation, questionnaires, work samples, interviews and/or testing. Attention, memory, organization, flexibility, logical thinking, and problem solving are among the skills assessed. The assessment process can take several sessions as a result.

If executive function disorder is identified, there are a number of things that can be done at school and home to help your child be successful. Since the disorder is based on mental skills, programs targeting cognitive processes can impact a child’s executive function. Both Fast ForWord and Brainware Safari are examples of these.

Incorporating the tips below can also be beneficial.

These and additional tips can be found on National Center for Learning Disabilities and Understood.org.

  • Estimate how long a task will take, in advance
  • Create checklists for completing assignments
  • Use a date book, agenda, or calendar to keep track of responsibilities and due dates
  • Note the due date at the top of the paper or assignment
  • Separate tasks into parts with clear objectives
  • Request verbal or written instructions
  • Plan to organize (Set aside regular time to clean out backpacks, desks, and rooms)
  • Make sure a designated work space is stocked with all necessary supplies
  • Communicate regularly with your child’s teacher about expectations, assignments, and progress
  • Check in regularly with your child about goals and accomplishments
  • Teach rules to help with impulse control
  • Set clear expectations for specific situations
  • Discuss alternative responses to challenges (practice through role play, for younger students)

It’s okay to reach out for help.

Executive function comes with a number of challenges. Understanding the cause and responding appropriately can make a world of difference to a struggling learner. Acknowledging effort and the frustration that comes from lack of success is also important. As awareness of the disorder increases, so have the number of resources available. Your child’s teacher, a clinician, or even other parents who’ve been where you are or are currently observing similar symptoms in their own children can be great sources of information. As with all learning issues, the sooner a challenge is identified, the sooner it can be addressed.