Executive Functions (Executive Functioning Skills)
What are Executive Functions?
‘Executive functions’ or ‘Executive functioning skills’, refer to a set of cognitive skills that enable all of us to organise our daily activities. Specifically, this includes things like time-management, problem-solving, the ability to focus and retain information, emotional-regulation, accessing learned information, following instructions, motivation and self-control.
Difficulty with some or all of these skills – known as ‘executive dysfunction’ – is often a feature of a profile of special needs and can occur, for example, as part of ADHD, autism, dyspraxia or dyslexia. It may also occur due to a brain injury.
Unsurprisingly, executive dysfunction has an enormous impact on a person’s ability to learn although each person will have their own, unique pattern of difficulties. A child who struggles to focus, for example, might feel overwhelmed in a busy classroom, while a student who finds it difficult to plan and manage their time may constantly arrive late for school or fail to submit homework on the right day.
Children used to be thought of as disruptive
“In years gone by, people assumed that children who were fidgety or easily-distracted were ‘naughty’ and ‘disruptive’. Quieter types who couldn’t concentrate might have been labelled ‘lazy’ or a ‘daydreamer’. But even though we now understand that poor executive function is simply a result of the ‘wiring’ of a person’s brain, teacher-training doesn’t necessarily show educators how to help students who struggle in this way”, says tutor Natasha.
Although she is an English teacher, she is currently working towards a qualification in supporting people with executive dysfunction. “I look back with a sense of sadness on my days as a classroom teacher,” she reminisces. “There were some students who couldn’t manage their time or who seemed to have memory issues, and for the life of me, I couldn’t work out why they had these problems. If only I’d known how to help them back then.”
Natasha suggests helping children to identify ways to help themselves, asking lots of questions to help them understand their own issues, rather than presenting them with solutions. “You might say, ‘What’s been happening at school?’ or, ‘So, you’ve been told off by the teacher for handing in your homework late?’ Next, you might ask, ‘What will help?’” she continues. “You could make suggestions like, ‘Have you considered using this app?’”
A Specialised Tutor or Coach Can Help
Natasha points out that getting help from a specialist tutor can make a big difference to a child’s life. “Without help, they won’t get the most out of their education. Parents could also do a lot of reading around executive function so that they come to understand it.”
Many educationalists recommend that older students with executive function issues can manage a heavy workload by using planners and ‘To Do’ lists to help them keep track of projects. They can also prevent overwhelm by breaking large assignments into smaller ‘chunks’. Forgetful students can have a set of textbooks at home as well as at school. Making notes visual by underlining key phrases in highlighter pen might help students to memorise information.
Teachers and tutors themselves can help disorganised students by keeping instructions clear and explaining them step-by-step. They can also use ‘verbal signposting’ to alert kids to points where they need to concentrate, using phrases such as, ‘You need to listen closely to this…’ or, ‘This is important to know….’
Advice from an ADHD Charity
Sam Asher, an adviser with charity the ADHD Foundation offers the following strategies for boosting executive functioning in younger children on the website, suggesting that creative activities can be especially useful for boosting executive skills –
- Singing, dancing and reciting rhymes – songs with physical actions and repeated phrases can enhance working memory (keeping information in the front of your mind). Dancing means a child has to organise their movements in time with a rhythm.
- Visual prompts – such as the instructions on flat-pack furniture or a Lego kit are useful in helping children to see step-by-step actions.
- Memory games such as Snap boost working memory while games such as Pick-up-Sticks help with impulse control and planning.
- Jigsaws and word-search puzzles facilitate problem-solving.
Krista is a qualified SEN tutor and has a SpLD accreditation (Dyscalculia, Dyslexia and ADHD).
She mentions that she has “worked with many students with a diagnosis of dyscalculia in both school and one to one settings. Often high levels of anxiety accompany a young person with dyscalculia, especially around maths and memory.
I make relieving and reducing anxiety a key component of my lessons, focussing on encouragement and confidence building. Depending on the age and interests of each student I employ techniques and activities such as rhymes, maths games, revision and flash cards, breaking down tasks into bite size chunks, making tasks visual, lots of repetition, and of course by making learning engaging and fun.”