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Executive function: A new lens for viewing your child

This theory of how we mentally navigate life offers a new way to view a child's strengths and struggles.

GreatSchools Blog

By Kristin Stanberry

As each of us goes about daily life, numerous mental processes and skills help us plan for — and respond to — the tasks, challenges, and opportunities we face. Researchers and psychologists have coined the term executive function to describe this constellation of cognitive controls. The dynamics of executive function affect every one of us — young and old, as well as those with and without disabilities. It influences our performance at school, on the job, our emotional responses, personal relationships, and social skills. Yet executive function plays itself out a little differently in each of us; each individual is uniquely strong or competent in some cognitive control areas and weaker in others.

Executive function is a theory developed over the past 20 years. Interest in the theory — and discussion of it — is on the upswing among professionals who treat people with cognitive disabilities, including those with learning disabilities (LD), and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD).

The theory of executive function is not an exact science, nor is it a standard diagnostic category. Even so, it can provide a framework in which parents and professionals can understand a child's level of cognitive ability. When a child struggles with learning, attention, or behavior problems, the concept of executive function can help us sort through and pinpoint where the breakdowns occur in the context of her overall functioning. It may also help highlight a child's areas of strength and talent. Finally, it may help us determine how to support the child's growth and development in areas of struggle.

How do experts define executive function?

While definitions of executive function vary slightly, and the concept is still evolving, there is some consensus among researchers, psychologists, and other experts. Sheldon H. Horowitz, Ed.D, director of professional services at the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), offers a description that reflects the views of many experts: "Executive functioning involves activating, orchestrating, monitoring, evaluating, and adapting different strategies to accomplish different tasks.... It requires the ability to analyze situations, plan and take action, focus and maintain attention, and adjust actions as needed to get the job done." Executive function is often compared to the conductor of a symphony orchestra, coordinating and managing many cognitive functions. For kids with LD and/or AD/HD, the interaction of cognitive functions may not always produce a harmonious result.

What abilities are involved in executive function?

Thomas Brown, Ph.D., assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine and associate director of the Yale Clinic for Attention and Related Disorders, has proposed a model that includes six clusters of cognitive functions involved in executive function. The following table illustrates Dr. Brown's model (terms used by other experts are shown in italics).
 

Cognitive cluster Executive functions
Activation

Organizing, prioritizing, and activating to work
Initiating, planning, strategizing, and sequencing

Focus

Focusing, sustaining, and shifting attention to tasks
Effort Regulating alertness, sustaining, and processing speed
Pacing, managing time, and resisting distraction
 

Emotion

Managing frustration and regulating emotions
Memory Utilizing working memory and accessing recall
Using feedback
Action Monitoring and self-regulating action
Inhibiting

"Each cluster operates in rapidly shifting interactive dynamics to do a wide variety of daily tasks that require self-regulation by using attention and memory to guide one's action rather than being micro-managed by someone else," explains Dr. Brown.

How does executive functioning work (or not work) in kids with learning or attention problems?

To better understand how various executive functions play out in a child's daily life, let's examine some common childhood tasks and situations. The tables below list some of the executive functions required in specific situations* — and what difficulties result when the necessary executive functions are dysfunctional.

Executive function used Signs of executive dysfunction

Reading comprehension

Working memory and accessing recall

When she reaches the end of a chapter, she's forgotten key points she picked up (and understood) while reading.

Regulating alertness

When reading a long passage, she can't stay alert and attentive; she has low stamina when it comes to reading.


Regulating processing speed
She reads in fits and starts; she can't find a rhythm in her reading pattern.

 

Executive function used Signs of executive dysfunction

Writing

Activating (starting)

She doesn't know how to begin a writing project.

Organizing

She has no idea how to outline an essay or report.

Prioritizing

She writes too much about things that are of minor importance to the story.

Sequencing

She presents facts/ideas in a disorganized, illogical order.

 

Executive function used Signs of executive dysfunction

Taking tests

Focusing

She is easily distracted and can't stay focused on the instructions or the test questions.

Strategizing

She can't develop an appropriate plan of attack by skimming the test and instructions before taking the test..

Working memory/ accessing recall

When trying to answer test questions, she has trouble remembering information she's previously learned. She struggles to hold onto and mentally manipulate related facts/concepts to answer test questions.

Pacing

She spends too much time on some questions and rushes through others. She may not efficiently budget the time that's allocated.

 

Executive function used Signs of executive dysfunction 

Long-term projects

Organizing

She can't determine the steps for the project (or their sequence). She has trouble collecting resources and often misplaces what she does find. She struggles to put the pieces of the project together in an orderly or logical way.

Managing time

She doesn't set realistic task milestones to work through the project from start to finish.

Self-regulation

She fails to monitor her progress.

 

Executive function used Signs of executive dysfunction

Shifting between tasks

Shifting attention

She can't "let go" of a task to attend to another project when instructed to. She gets "stuck" on a task or favorite pastime and can't move her focus elsewhere when required.

Managing frustration

She becomes angry or frustrated when she feels forced to switch gears.

 

Executive function used Signs of executive dysfunction

Playing a game with a group of her peers

Self-regulation

She has a hard time waiting her turn and working cooperatively.

Managing frustration

When frustrated with her peers, she may act out before trying to understand and manage the perceived conflict internally and/or through calm communication.

* Note: The scenarios described above are examples but do not represent a complete list.

Are there tests that measure a child's strength and weakness in executive function?

There is some debate about this, but Dr. Brown states: "A person's ability to perform the complex, self-managed tasks of everyday life provides a much better measure of his or her executive functioning than can neuropsychological tests."

There is also a debate about whether or not an individual's executive function profile can be used, in and of itself, to help identify LD or diagnose AD/HD. It is not standard practice at this time.

How can you use the executive function framework to understand your child's strengths and struggles?

As a parent, you may find the framework of executive function helpful for identifying not only your child's area(s) of difficulty but also her strengths and talents. By organizing and teasing apart that information, her unique "executive function profile" may emerge. This will help you determine where she needs extra help, and where her strengths might help compensate for her areas of struggle.

This perspective may also help you communicate your concerns and observations to teachers and other professionals. This may, in turn, help educators determine what accommodations or interventions might target her areas of difficulty, perhaps by playing to some of her strengths. (Note: Many teachers are not familiar with the concept of executive function. However, your school psychologists may be familiar with the theory because neuropsychological testing is used to assess executive function.)

Whether or not your child meets the criteria for LD or AD/HD, understanding her executive function profile — where she struggles, where she succeeds, and how those abilities interact — may be a powerful tool for understanding who she is, and how she learns and functions best. Depending on the age of your child, it may also provide a lens through which she can view herself — a view that will change and develop as she matures.

Kristin Stanberry is a writer and editor specializing in parenting, education, and consumer health/wellness issues. Her areas of expertise include learning disabilities and AD/HD, which she wrote about extensively for Schwab Learning and GreatSchools.

 

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

04/23/2012:
" "los angeles therapist", "los angeles psychiatrist", "ADD doctor", "ADHD doctor", "depression doctor", "best psychiatrist los angeles", "best depression doctorLos Angeles". Sometimes community centers will have shrinks you can talk to. I think they charge on sliding scale. The only problem is they are shrinks-in-training so they eventually leave. Some people don't have a problem with that though. "
02/2/2012:
"Thanks for breaking Exec. Function into smaller parts with real examples. I'll be able to look for more specific answers now. (And I don't think using she in examples is a political agenda. What was that about, anyway?) Our struggle for years with Asperger's and Exec. Function is always the same for every subject and every report card since 4th grade (now 10th). Age and maturity are clearly important and I wish we could find a way to hold back our son, but content is never the problem. He knows the material. But execution, time management and (now I've learned a new word) activation are always keeping him from success. "
03/15/2011:
"Thank you so much for this article. It is a succinct and clear way to explain this issue. I will be forwarding it to some family members and teachers so they can better understand my daughter! This will also help me to tack down her strengths and weaknesses in the area of executive functioning."
12/13/2010:
"my daughter (now 15) has struggled all through school, bothe academically and socially. To the point that we have put her into a private school. She suffers greatly from exuctive dysfuction in all facets of her day. 'Understanding' this is not eneough..what can be done to actually help 'her' with her daily homework schedule. She often sits for hours each night with very minial amount completed, even with guidelines and notes. Are there any programs or government help out there?"
10/20/2010:
"Hi, I think i have hit home run stretc! As an adult ADD and a parent of a an autistic and a seemingly genius sibling. The truth is ADD is purpose viewd through discrepancies hence the short attention spans-on reading your article i can see lighht at the end John, Kenya"
10/13/2010:
"i think my child has this. thanks much."
07/28/2010:
"Great article. Thank you."
02/18/2010:
"My teenage daughter has been indentified as having an Executive Functions disability. I am looking for concrete tools to help her. Any ideas?"
10/19/2009:
"I have a 16 yo son who has this issue but can't get school to realize signifigance. He is now a sophomore drop-out/runaway. This is the same child with straight As in Middle School and took S.A.T. for John Hopkins Talented Youth as a 7th grader. But because no help was received, he gave up. A gifted child with great potential who also had an LD that no one (but me) would pay attention to... I have a simple explanation of this disorder: 'This a is large symphony with plenty of instruments and talented players who are missing their conductor and therefore are unable to perform together.' Or: 'the information in the brain is like a jigsaw puzzle that can't be completed as there is no picture to follow.' "
09/1/2009:
" The last paragraph of this article mentions a very important area, age. Different cognitive functions happen at various age grouping. Although executive function play a part of learning they play a larger role in who we are. The brain has the ability to re-direct information to centers that are not functioning to those that are able to 'pick up the slack.' That again, are stages of brain development that coincides with age. In my opinion the best way to 'see' where the LD within the brain is to use Functional MRI. That is the future of education of children with disabilities. "
07/22/2009:
"Want some additional information, answers to questions, or support? Please consider joining and posting them at the 'Learning and Attention Difficulties' group found here at GS to receive to receive practical suggestions from parents who have faced similar challenges: http://community.greatschools.org/groups/11554"
04/29/2009:
"A good book on executive functions is called No Mind Left Behind which is geared for parents and teachers. The author has a web site that has a test you can use. It is at www.dradamcox.com."
04/15/2009:
"Regarding the individual that is requesting more information on testing of Executive Function: might I suggest visiting the website parinc.com and look for the BRIEF. This is the only informant based test of Executive Functioning that I know of. I highly recommend it. Sincerely, Christine Fontenot, MS"
03/19/2009:
"Great article - I love the examples you give about how aspects of EF can affect various tasks such as projects, reading, social. I think it would be helpful for parents to have a list of tests that measure aspects of EF. BRIEF, Wisconsin Trailmaking, D-KEFS, NEPSY. Often times parents ask that schools consider EF issues during evaluations. Without the data, schools may be reluctant to include EF goals and related instruction to teach stategies and build Executive functioning skill,"
01/12/2009:
"Thank you for the list. I am writing reports now for school and you saved me a lot of work. I also want to ad my 2 cents; It is silly to say 'she' all the time. Just say 'he' and you'll be right more often when you are talking about Exec func. I do not agree that this is a proper venue for pushing some other political agenda. And it belittles your credibility! -Mayer"
10/21/2008:
"I would like to have some more information on testing of Executive Function. Where can I find an example of a test."
09/3/2008:
"I thought this explanation of executive funciton was very well organized. What about the inablity to complete tasks? Is that due to effort or inability to manage time? The article did state that people with this challenge do not manage time on projects well, but does that mean they are challenged with finishing tasks? If so, why? Why can a person activate and initiate projects, but not complete them? What about nonverbal learning disability (NVLD) . It is rare to find information regarding that learning disability. My daughter who is deaf was diagnosed with both ADHD and NVLD."
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