Improving Executive Function

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List of Executive Functions

You might be surprised to learn that while executive functioning issues are usually found in kids with ADD or ADHD, they are also common in kids with dyslexia. The following is a list of executive functions found in Late, Lost, and Unprepared by Drs. Joyce Cooper-Kahn and Laurie Dietzel*:

  • Inhibition: the ability to stop behavior, actions, or thoughts when appropriate. The opposite is impulsivity – the weak ability to stop from acting on impulses.
  • Shift: the ability to move easily from one situation to the next and to be able to think flexibly enough to respond appropriately in the new situation
  • Emotional control: the ability to use rational thought to regulate feelings and emotional responses
  • Initiation: the ability to begin a task or activity. It also includes independently generating ideas, responses, and problem-solving strategies.
  • Working memory: the capacity to hold information in mind for the purpose of completing a task
  • Planning/Organization: the ability to manage current and future-oriented task demands
  • Organization of materials: the ability to “impose order on work, play, and storage spaces”
  • Self-Monitoring: the ability to monitor one’s own performance and measure it against some standard of what is needed or expected

* Joyce Cooper-Kahn and Laurie Dietzel. Late, Lost, and Unprepared. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House, 2008.

How executive functioning typically works

The article Understanding Executive Functioning Issues by Amanda Morin shows how executive functioning typically works:

  • “Analyze a task. Figure out what needs to be done.
  • Plan how to handle the task.
  • Get organized. Break down the plan into a series of steps.
  • Figure out how much time is needed to carry out the plan, and set aside the time.
  • Make adjustments as needed.
  • Finish the task in the time allotted”**

Performing almost any task involves some level of executive functioning. When working well, the brain can move through these steps in a few seconds, though simple tasks become a challenge when these skills are weak.

Because every person has a unique combination of individual executive function, someone who struggles can display any of the following signs:

  • “Finds it hard to figure out how to get started on a task
  • Can focus on small details or the overall picture, but not both at the same time
  • Has trouble figuring out how much time a task requires
  • Does things either quickly and messily or slowly and incompletely
  • Finds it hard to incorporate feedback into work or an activity
  • Sticks with a plan, even when it’s clear that the plan isn’t working
  • Has trouble paying attention and is easily distracted
  • Loses a train of thought when interrupted
  • Needs to be told the directions many times
  • Has trouble making decisions
  • Has a tough time switching gears from one activity to another
  • Doesn’t always have the words to explain something in detail
  • Needs help processing what something feels, sounds, or looks like
  • Isn’t able to think about or do more than one thing at a time
  • Remembers information better using cues, abbreviations, or acronyms”***

Young children do not have well-developed executive functions. These skills typically grow in daily life through imitating the examples set by teachers and parents through the preschool, elementary, and middle school years. Students with learning disabilities need explicit teaching and many opportunities for supported practice for improving executive function skills. Scaffolding with temporary supports is necessary until sufficient repetition occurs to build neural pathways. More and more of these functions become fully operational as the prefrontal cortex in the brain, which controls executive functioning, reaches full development between puberty and the mid-twenties. Concerns regarding executive functioning need to be evaluated in light of what is typical for a certain age range.

As a parent, you can play the role of surrogate executive and provide supports during the growth periods of these skills. Supports will need to be used many times to provide the repetition the brain needs to internalize the skills. The brain needs many repetitions to strengthen the neural pathways to improve executive function and make these skills automatic.

A few examples of supports for your child include:

  • Verbalize each step: Model the task and verbalize each step in the task as you do it. Be concise and consistent. This creates patterns for the brain to follow in future actions.
  • Checklists: Create and use a checklist for any task or routine that repeatedly causes frustration. It is a simple way to foster independence. Children do best when each step uses simple written directions.
  • Visual reminders: These are like checklists except they outline the task through pictures. Take a picture of the child doing each individual step of the task, then put the pictures in order on a page. Do this for any task the child has difficulty doing but needs to accomplish. For example, “clean your room” is meaningless to a child with executive functioning issues, but seeing a picture of picking up toys, and another of folding clothes, and another of shutting drawers, and yet another of making the bed gives the child step-by-step instructions for everything expected of them for that task. Give each task its own page, and put the photos in plastic sheet protectors in a binder. Cue the child to use the binder when they need to complete a task.
  • Use questions: Anytime you can use a question to cue the child to complete a task rather than telling them what to do, you create a scaffold for their brain to learn how to think about the actions they need to take.

** Amanda Morin. “Understanding Executive Functioning Issues.” Understood.Org. 2014.
*** Ibid.


See also the article on ADHD and Memory 

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