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Executive Function

‘Executive function’ or ‘executive functioning skills’ refers to a set of cognitive skills that enable us to make plans, organise information, follow instructions, maintain focus, retain information, motivate ourselves, regulate our emotions and be on time.

Quite a list! But when you consider that the education system requires students to master all of the above with the ultimate aim of passing exams, it’s sobering to realise just how difficult and frustrating school must be for children who have problems in this area.

Impaired executive function is common in people with neurodiversity, particularly ADHD, autism, dyspraxia and dyslexia. Each individual will have their own profile of difficulties in this way – one person might struggle with time-keeping, for example, but be reasonably good at focusing, while another might be able to follow instructions but find it impossible to be on time for anything.

In addition, some research suggests that executive functioning skills take longer to develop in neurodiverse people than in the rest of the population, meaning children who struggle with this can appear ‘younger’ than their chronological age.

Building Trust is Essential

Specialist SEN teacher and tutor Sarah has worked with many students who have needed support with executive functions. “Every child is unique so you have to take the time to get to know them and find out what’s going to ‘hook’ them,” she explains. “It’s essential that they feel emotionally-secure with you before you can achieve anything on the learning front.

“When I first meet them, I work to build a rapport, keeping it light and finding out about their hobbies and interests. There’s no pressure – you can almost see their shoulders come down as they start to relax.”

Sarah’s pet pooch Dougal often makes an appearance on video calls, helping to create a peaceful atmosphere. In turn, students sometimes introduce their own pets to the sessions.

Problems With Executive Functioning Skills Don’t Completely Disappear

It’s also important to ‘ground’ students at the beginning of each session, she points out. “With ADHD, people often associate it with hyperactivity but it can also create constant chatter in a person’s brain which in turn affects executive function,” she says. “It helps to start with a little, general conversation about what they’ve been up to before we begin work, keeping ‘in the moment’.”

Although executive functioning skills can be improved to an extent, she says, if someone has difficulties in this area, they may always find this area a little challenging. Because of this, it’s helpful to learn coping strategies. As one example of this, she adds, a great many students find it impossible to tell the time on a regular clock but can learn to do so if it’s presented digitally on a phone or computer. Sharing ways of working with families and schools also provides a child with consistency.

“I also like to involve my students in self-assessment and get them to rate how they’re doing in different areas,” Sarah continues. “I get them to pinpoint exactly what they need help with so we can plan solutions together – it’s empowering for the learner. Sometimes, the students create their own rating system – one lad I work with grades himself as either ‘yay’, ‘nay’ or ‘meh’.”

Help Executive Functioning Skills at Home

Charity The ADHD Foundation suggests the following activities to boost different aspects of executive function –

  • Making a Lego model for a child to copy.
  • Using visual instructions for a step-by-step process such as following a recipe.
  • Jigsaws and crosswords provide opportunities to use working memory.
  • Games such as Jenga and Snap help a child to control their impulses.
  • Games where children have to remember and match pairs of cards can help working memory.
  • Reading books can help a child to predict ‘what happens next’ and think about consequences.
  • Physical activities that involve skill and focus – such as throwing a ball through a hoop – assist with focus.

Specialist publisher Jessica Kingsley offers a number of books on executive function. One of these is ‘Helping Students Take Control of Everyday Executive Function – The Attention Fix’ by Paula Moraine at £18.99.

In this, Moraine recommends exploring eight key areas with young people – strengths and weaknesses, relationships, self-advocacy, review and preview, motivation and incentive, synthesis and analysis, rhythm and routine and practice and repetition.

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