Many students are now being diagnosed with executive functioning problems, and schools are scrambling to meet the needs of this population of learners. Because many teachers and administrators don’t understand the difficulties associated with this problem, countless students with these difficulties are mislabeled as careless, lazy, or unmotivated. Unfortunately, these misunderstood learners often become discouraged, and many experience feelings of helplessness, depression and anxiety.
So What Can We Do to Help?
First, we need to understand the complex nature of executive functioning. Then, we need to educate teachers and administrators on what they can do to accommodate these capable learners.
What Is Executive Functioning?
Executive Functioning (EF) is the command and control center of the brain. Much like an air traffic controller, EF manages and manipulates information traveling in and out of our consciousness. It’s a place where learned experiences and present actions connect. Another appropriate metaphor is to think of EF as the conductor of cognitive skills. EF directs the cognitive performance played by our senses.
How Does EF Impact a Learner’s Cognitive Performance?
- Slows processing speed
- Impairs motivation
- Undermines stamina
- Sabotages goal-directed persistence
- Impedes one’s ability to hold and manipulate information
- Blocks one’s ability to retrieve information
- Triggers impulsive behaviors
- Minimizes one’s ability to sustain attention
How Does EF Impact a Learner’s Emotional Regulation?
- Minimizes one’s ability to manage frustrating situations
- Triggers an overall negative attitude
- Sparks feelings of anxiety
- Blocks one’s ability to prioritize
- Inhibits one’s ability to self-regulate
How Does EF Impact Schooling?
All of these internal difficulties can have a profound impact on a learner’s educational experience. Common manifestations include:
- Difficulties initiating schoolwork
- Problems recording assignments
- Issues locating and handing in assignments
- Problems maintaining an organized book bag, locker, and homework space
- Trouble arriving to class on time and keeping appointments
What Are Some General Strategies that Can Help Those Who Struggle with EF?
- Participate in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
- Embrace meditation and mindfulness training
- Pursue cognitive remedial therapy in areas such as working memory and emotional regulation
- Maintain a structured daily routine
- Use planners and PDA technology
What Are Some Academic Solutions?
- Create a structured routine for completing homework
- Make to-do checklists
- Help student motivation by offering incentives and positive reinforcement
- Create and use graphic organizers for writing
- Use technology, such as a smartphone, to create reminders
- Work with someone who can help:
- Set and monitor priorities
- Break large assignments into manageable chunks
- Demonstrate note-taking skills
- Teach study skills and test-taking strategies
- Generate memory strategies
- Teach metacognitive skills by thinking through the process aloud
Academic Tools for Success
There are a number of tools on the market that can help support the needs of students with executive functioning challenges. Here are some free sample pages from my publication, Planning Time Management and Organization for Success. If you want to strengthen executive functioning while having fun, try my Executive Functioning Card Games.
Executive functions develop gradually and slowly from birth to the end of adolescence or early adulthood.
If the first manifestations of executive functions are visible from the first year of life, the process of maturation is slow and the development of these abilities also involves learning. It is therefore normal for children to have difficulty in controlling themselves, to focus their attention for a certain time, to adapt to changes, to stop an activity to start a different type of activity, to follow rules, to manage complex tasks, to give up immediate gratification …
The progressive development of executive functions explains that one or more EF deficiencies exist during childhood and persists partly in adolescents. The development of executive functions is rapid during the preschool years and accelerates again in adolescence. It must be emphasized that individual variations are common.
- At 3 years, children are able to perform tasks that have two different rules (for example: if you see a red apple on the screen, press such button, if you see a green apple, press another button). They are able to focus their attention on one of the two rules the time necessary to reach the goal and to inhibit the other rule, the two instructions being maintained in the short-term memory.
- While it is difficult for 3-years-old to consider several representations of the same object, from 4 years old, children can recognize an object for what it is and its resemblance to another (it is a sponge, it looks like a pebble).
- After the age of 3, the efficiency of the inhibitory control increases, the child gradually becomes able to defer a reward to obtain a greater one. He controls his desires and emotions.
- At age 5, the child can inhibit one rule to activate another even when it concerns two characteristics of the same object (if the red object is round, press a button, if the red object is square, press a other button). He can successfully resolve a conflict and inhibit an action that has become routine (after pressing a button several times for the red object, it must change the button if the object is also square). As memory develops, the child remembers the places and objects he has already explored, and he can think of different strategies and imagine alternatives.
- The executive functions of 7 years old children approach those of adults, if we stick to what can be visualized in brain imaging, ie concerning the development of neural connections involved in executive control. Children of this age can focus their attention on a task. The self-regulatory capacity continues to develop between 10 years old until the end of adolescence.
The development of executive control also implies a diversification of the processes involved, a specialization (the child is gradually able to remain focused on a goal and choose the behaviors best adapted to a situation) and a control more and more self-directed ( it depends less and less on the adult and the context to self-regulate) and anticipated (he is capable of more planning).
Executive Functions (EF) include high-order cognitive processes that control, manage, plan cognitive, emotional, and behavioral functions aimed at achieving a goal. EF are required for monitoring and adapting your behavior to new contextual conditions. They can be thought of as the set of skills necessary to voluntarily guide behavior aimed at a goal, especially in new and unusual situations.
Different sub domains of the EF may exist, some of which are defined as nuclear or basic:
- working memory;
- interference control;
- cognitive flexibility, which includes creativity and ability to adapt quickly and flexibly to changing external circumstances (Diamond, 2013).
These Nuclear EF are the basis of other top-level EF such as reasoning, problem solving, and planning.
A large literature suggests that in children with neuro-developmental disorders, some EF sub-domains may be compromised. In particular, children with Language Disorder often show poorer skills than typical developmental peers in evidence that evaluates work memory, inhibition, and cognitive flexibility.
Increasing attention to the study of EF has helped generate evaluation tools that can be used since the preschool age.
Detecting the behavior of children in relation to their EF can be achieved by standardized neuropsychological tests administered in a structured situation, or through systematic observation of the behavior of children in different life contexts.
The goal of divergent thinking is to generate many different ideas about a topic in a short period of time. It involves breaking a topic down into its various component parts in order to gain insight about the various aspects of the topic. Divergent thinking typically occurs in a spontaneous, free-flowing manner, such that the ideas are generated in a random, unorganized fashion. Following divergent thinking, the ideas and information will be organized using convergent thinking; i.e., putting the various ideas back together in some organized, structured way.
To begin brainstorming potential topics, it is often helpful to engage in self analysis and topic analysis.
Ask the following questions to help brainstorm a list of potential topics.
- How do I spend my time? What are my activities during a normal day?
- What do I know about them? What are my areas of expertise? What am I studying in school?
- What do I like? What are my hobbies? What are my interests?
- What bothers me? What would I like to change in my world or life?
- What are my strongest beliefs, values and philosophies?
Ask the following questions to help narrow and refine a broad topic into a specific, focused one. Substitute your topic for the word “something.”
- How would you describe something?
- What are the causes of something?
- What are the effects of something?
- What is important about something?
- What are the smaller parts that comprise something?
- How has something changed? Why are those changes important?
- What is known and unknown about something?
- What category of ideas or objects does something belong to?
- Is something good or bad? Why?
- What suggestions or recommendations would you make about something?
- What are the different aspects of something you can think of?
Techniques to Stimulate Divergent Thinking
1. Brainstorming. Brainstorming is a technique which involves generating a list of ideas in a creative, unstructured manner. The goal of brainstorming is to generate as many ideas as possible in a short period of time. The key tool in brainstorming is “piggybacking,” or using one idea to stimulate other ideas. During the brainstorming process, ALL ideas are recorded, and no idea is disregarded or criticized. After a long list of ideas is generated, one can go back and review the ideas to critique their value or merit.
2. Keeping a Journal. Journals are an effective way to record ideas that one thinks of spontaneously. By carrying a journal, one can create a collection of thoughts on various subjects that later become a source book of ideas. People often have insights at unusual times and places. By keeping a journal, one can capture these ideas and use them later when developing and organizing materials in the prewriting stage.
3. Freewriting. When free-writing, a person will focus on one particular topic and write non-stop about it for a short period of time. The idea is to write down whatever comes to mind about the topic, without stopping to proofread or revise the writing. This can help generate a variety of thoughts about a topic in a short period of time, which can later be restructured or organized following some pattern of arrangement.
4. Mind or Subject Mapping. Mind or subject mapping involves putting brainstormed ideas in the form of a visual map or picture that that shows the relationships among these ideas. One starts with a central idea or topic, then draws branches off the main topic which represent different parts or aspects of the main topic. This creates a visual image or “map” of the topic which the writer can use to develop the topic further. For example, a topic may have four different branches (sub-topics), and each of those four branches may have two branches of its own (sub-topics of the sub-topic) *Note* this includes both divergent and convergent thinking.
Source: Faculty of Washington
1. Flexible Thinking and Real-Life Learning
Doctors have a term to describe the ability to think about things in a different way. They call it “cognitive flexibility.” It uses two skills—flexible thinking and set shifting. Flexible thinking is when kids are able to think about something in a new way. Set shifting is when they can let go of the old way of doing something in order to use a new way.
Here’s an example of how those skills work together. Kids often start out learning to tie shoes using the “Bunny Ears” method (making each lace into a loop). They then often progress to the “Squirrel and the Tree” method (making one loop and wrapping the other lace around it). Flexible thinking enables kids to consider this new squirrelly approach. Set shifting helps them “unlearn” the old bunny-ears way in order to use the new method.
Kids who are rigid in their thinking have difficulty moving beyond the more basic ways of doing things. If your child has weak flexible thinking skills, taking on new tasks and responsibilities as she gets older may be tough.
2. Flexible Thinking and Reading
Kids use flexible thinking both for learning to read and for reading to learn. When they’re starting out, flexible thinking enables them to understand how the same letter combination can make different sounds (such as the “ough” in words like enough and dough). It’s also the skill that helps kids understand how words can be used in more than one way (such as “Don’t slip on the banana peel” and “Sign the permission slip”).
As kids start reading books to get information, they use flexible thinking to understand what information is important and what details are just used to add to a description. Flexible thinking is also what helps them understand the perspectives of different characters in a story. Flexible thinkers have an easier time understanding idioms (such as “keep your ear to the ground”) and puns (such as “the joke about the duck quacked me up”).
If your child is rigid in her thinking, you may see that she has trouble identifying the correct pronunciation for words and interprets what she reads much too literally.
3. Flexible Thinking and Writing
Writing is a complicated process for kids. They have to organize their thoughts and choose the words for the sentences. They have to add supporting details while keeping track of the main idea. On top of that, they need to be able to check for grammar and spelling mistakes. All of that requires the use of flexible thinking. Kids who are more rigid thinkers can have a hard time shifting among all these things.
If your child has trouble thinking flexibly, her writing may not have enough supporting details. Or it might have lots of errors in it.
4. Flexible Thinking and Language Learning
Flexible thinking is the skill kids use to learn the rules of language. It helps them to know, for instance, that the way to put most words into the past tense is to add “-ed” to the end. Flexible thinkers also understand there are exceptions to those rules. It makes sense to them that the past tense of go is went. These kids can easily use both rules and exceptions of language.
Flexible thinking also plays a role in learning foreign languages. In other languages, letters can have different sounds. Sentences aren’t put together the way they are in English.
If your child is not a flexible thinker, it may be hard for her to learn the rules and the exceptions that make up languages. She may learn better by listening to how people speak the language than by sitting down and reading the rules in a textbook.
5. Flexible Thinking and Math
Flexible thinking is a key skill in math. Kids use it to find ways to solve word problems and to understand that a phrase like “how many in all” means that addition is being used. Flexible thinking also helps kids understand that there’s more than one way to solve a math problem. They can see how a new type of problem can be solved using a formula they already know.
Without strong flexible thinking skills, your child may struggle with math that requires her to do more than just solve the equation on the page. “Cheat sheets” that connect words or phrases to math operations can be helpful tools for your child. So can checklists of the different things she needs to look at to solve a problem.
6. Flexible Thinking and Studying
Doing homework and studying for a test require flexible thinking, too. Knowing how to switch between different subjects during homework time becomes increasingly important as kids get older and have more work to juggle. Doing math problems requires a very different strategy than doing a writing assignment. Kids need to be able to change their thinking to handle both.
When it comes to studying, kids use flexible thinking to figure out what kind of information they need to pay the most attention to. Do they need to memorize facts and information, such as for a multiple-choice quiz? Or do they need to learn the basic ideas so they can retell the story, such as for an essay test?
If your child has poor flexible thinking skills, switching strategies will not come naturally. This can make homework time a source of frustration. Teaching her note-taking strategies and providing homework planners can ease the stress on both of you.
The Good News: There Are Ways to Help
If your child has trouble with flexible thinking, she’s likely to have some problems learning. There are ways to help, though. Your child’s teacher can use strategies in the classroom to teach your child in ways that make more sense to her.
You and your child can also play games at home to build flexible thinking skills and come up with ways to make homework more manageable. One of the best things you can do is to help your child learn to make a list of pros and cons, first on paper and then in her head, to determine the best choice.
- Kids who have weak flexible thinking skills have trouble knowing when not to use typical grammar and pronunciation rules.
- Kids with weak flexible thinking skills have difficulty understanding abstract concepts in math and reading.
- There are tools and strategies that can help your child think less rigidly.
- Flexible thinking allows kids to switch gears and look at things differently.
- Flexible thinking requires the ability to “unlearn” old ways of doing things.
- Flexible thinking plays a key role in all types of learning.
Imagine you’re driving somewhere, and discover that a street you were planning to turn onto is blocked off for construction. Your initial plan for reaching your destination obviously isn’t going to work. So you instantly come up with a new way to get there.
That’s what flexible thinking is about—being able to quickly switch gears and find new approaches to solve problems.
Your child may struggle with flexible thinking, which plays an important role in how kids learn and adapt to new information in many areas.
Cognitive Processing Speed
Cognitive Processing Speed reflects how quickly and efficiently a student is able to perform mental tasks. For many students, the intellectual portion of schoolwork isn’t the challenge – it’s how quickly they can process and express the information that they know. This set of skills becomes particularly important in time-limited scenarios (including standardized tests) and in managing tasks that require multiple steps, such as higher-level math and critical reading activities. Processing speed challenges are also linked to delays in other processing skills and improvements in Cognitive Processing Speed generally result in improvements across a number of other processing skills.
Working Memory determines how well new concepts and information can be integrated and used in simple tasks building up to more complex tasks. Critical to academic success, working memory is often implicated in mathematics as it affects how well a student can hold multiple pieces of information in his or her mind while solving a problem or conducting a complex analysis. Similarly, in reading comprehension, simultaneously keeping multiple ideas or pieces of information in mind is critical to a student’s understanding and success. Working Memory skills are crucial in any course of study that values more complex analytical, scientific, mathematical or financial analysis.
Visual Processing correlates with a student’s ability to process and manipulate visual stimuli efficiently to perform various tasks. Challenges in Visual Processing can make upper level math and sciences more challenging as many of these classes use diagrams to demonstrate concepts. For university students, science, engineering and higher-level financial modeling, in particular, are heavily visual subjects that require strong visual processing skills. Students who struggle with Visual Processing may find that they rely more heavily on other forms of input – such as language – to compensate for visual challenges. Visual Processing challenges may be linked to underlying physical challenges, such as visual tracking or convergence challenges.
Language Processing – Reading, Written and Oral
Language Processing requires a foundation of being able to decode words effectively, associating strings of symbols (letters) with the appropriate sounds. As students go through school, they are constantly being asked to learn vocabulary and use it in context. Challenges in Language Processing make acquiring new vocabulary difficult, which then means that applying new words they encounter to other higher-order critical reading and thinking activities will be more difficult. Auditory Analysis determines how well information presented in oral formats will be received and processed – particularly when listening to lectures in an academic setting. Auditory processing skills prove important for skills as simple as following directions (particularly multi-step directions) all the way up to retaining content presented in lectures, the predominant instructional format in high schools and universities. Many students with Auditory Analysis challenges become quite adept at APPEARING as though they understand what is being said even if they don’t completely understand. As a result of the extraordinary effort these students must apply to processing auditory input, school can be physically draining and emotionally stressful. For many students, alleviating the effort and energy diverted to accurately processing and comprehending auditory input can result in increased attention across the board.
Logic and Reasoning
Logic and Reasoning is the core skill used in problem solving and strategizing. Logic and Reasoning skills impact a student’s ability to plan and prioritize a strategy for multistep problems, especially as teachers assume a base level of conceptual understanding and assign problems that require a higher degree of inference. For any discipline that involves mathematics or written work which requires logically organized, persuasive arguments, logic and reasoning skills are crucially important and can be strengthened with the proper support.
Selective Attention describes a student’s sensitivity to distractions and the ability to sustain attention despite other competing stimuli. Selective Attention is also strongly correlated with a student’s ability to prioritize information and tasks, manage time and stay organized. Selective attention is what allows students to sift through the overwhelming amount of auditory and visual input in their daily environment and interactions and prioritize this input effectively. For example, a lecture may be challenging to attend to due to the sounds of a classmate tapping his pen or the construction site next door. Similarly, a page full of dense text may be challenging to sift through for important information. Ultimately, Selective Attention links strongly with a student’s Executive Functioning skills, which we also address in our program (see below). In the absence of strong Selective Attention skills, a student’s ability to take in and organize information can be seriously constrained. This often means that he or she will have to work extra hard as they attempt to attend to everything instead of just what is most important.
Academic Skill-Building and Executive Functioning
Learning Efficiency’s programs cover a number of key academic skills and executive functioning processes, including:
- Time Management
- Task Analysis and Prioritization
- Organization and Note-Taking Skills
Read on for an in-depth description of what each of these skills includes:
Time management is a bedrock skill needed for academic performance—particularly as students reach middle school, high school and university, when demands on their time rise sharply. Students who struggle with time management often procrastinate and complete their schoolwork very close to the due date, usually the night or morning before. Part of this dynamic is that their workload leaves them little room to get ahead. With more efficient planning, however, they can regain lost time and feel more in control of their work and lives. Mr Mizrahi coaches students in developing a variety of habits and techniques to strengthen behaviors that will help them manage time more effectively. With targeted guidance and coaching, time management can become a more natural part of their lives.
Task Analysis and Prioritization
Difficulty breaking down large tasks, such as term-long science projects and research papers, is a problem experienced by many students across a wide range of ages. Larger tasks, especially those with fewer explicit instructions, can give even the most organized students difficulty. Students who struggle with task analysis and prioritization often show tremendous work ethic but have difficulty tackling large tasks or prioritizing a number of competing obligations. When given step-by-step directions, these students possess the technical skills to complete each task, but identifying those steps without direction proves harder. Practicing this skill, just like others, involves pursuing a variety of new and multi-stage projects. Mr Mizrahi provides an excellent opportunity to work on these skills through projects that build on a student’s existing interests. As we work on their chosen projects, we focus more on the process and less on the specific content to reduce the number of stressors inherent in building these skills.
Organization and Note-Taking Skills
A student’s ability to be successful in school is not purely academic. For most students, in fact, a far greater component of their academic success is whether or not they can maintain the level of organization required to keep track of the many things they need to do and the information they need to do it. Students with challenges in organization often find themselves spending more time than necessary to complete their work. Mr Mizrahi works with students to build an organizational system they can use to structure their tasks and environment, improving efficiency while offering the comfort that comes with having a predictable structure. For older students (middle school, high school and university), Mr Mizrahi also includes exercises related to note-taking, including HOW to take notes and tools for prioritizing information. Students with enhanced organization and note-taking skills will be able to complete more work in less time – reducing stress while improving academic performance.
Left/Right Brain and Brain/Body Integration
Like the building blocks in our physical development (e.g. crawling before walking) neurodevelopmental systems are the building blocks for academic, social and behavioral learning. For a variety of reasons, some of these systems develop less well in some of us than in others—this simply means some of our kids must work harder to support these underlying systems.
When students experience challenges with neurodevelopmental systems, they may appear anxious, distracted or fatigued in class. It takes a great deal of effort to support suboptimal systems that are working hard to keep the body still and upright while also staying focused on the teacher. The extra pressure can overtax a child’s system and leaves little room for attending and learning. For some students, this sense of feeling overtaxed can lend itself to impulsive or even explosive behavior when stress levels rise.
An overview of the most crucial systems includes:
The strength of the integration between our left and right brains depends on the efficient functioning of all the other neurodevelopmental systems. Interhemispheric communication makes it possible to reason and strategize, process and retain information, express our thoughts as written words, mentally and physically organize, respond when simultaneously doing another task, manage academics, and play sports. Organized rhythmic activity helps to organize the brain. For students whose integration is inefficient, their processing is often not supported by efficient differentiation and lower level sensory-motor systems. These inefficiencies then leave less energy in reserve for integrating information between the left and right sides of the brain. For many students, interhemispheric integration is linked to challenges in working with word problems and higher order reading comprehension questions. As the demands increase over the years, this challenge may manifest in ways such as essays/reports/homework not being representative of what a student knows or is able to articulate. You may also find that a student avoids expanding beyond his comfort zone of strengths so as not to overload his system.
Our vestibular system, located in the inner ear, forms a foundation for almost all of our other neurodevelopmental systems. The inner ear supports hearing, vision, muscle tone, proprioception, kinesthesia, awareness of gravity and barometric pressure, balance, knowledge of starting, stopping, accelerating, decelerating, motor planning and movement. It is the vestibular system that allows us to do more than one thing at a time. When a student’s vestibular system is working inefficiently, the disorganization can contribute to difficulty in attending to and retaining auditory information when no visual or kinesthetic support is provided. In social situations that are dynamic and unpredictable, many individuals with vestibular challenges may likely seem more reserved or they may prefer to do things on their own rather than be in a more chaotic group setting. Students with vestibular inefficiencies often fidget or need to shift in their chair, feeling a need to get up and move around a room. Rather than asking a student to “sit still,” our program focuses on helping them learn how to monitor their own need for increased vestibular stimulation in order to be able to focus. We give them strategies for coping and perform more successfully in school.
Beyond visual acuity (e.g. 20/20 vision), our eyes also need to work TOGETHER to focus on a single point (convergence) and move smoothly over information (visual tracking). Strengthening this system allows for improved reading, spelling, attention and eye contact. Ocular motility (visual tracking) is interdependent on the vestibular system and muscle tone. Auditory processing is directly linked with vision through the workings of the colliculus, which means that when one system is stressed so is the other. Roughly speaking our ears follow our eyes in the sense that our auditory attention is guided by what we are looking at. If it is hard for our eyes to maintain focus for an extended period, then we are more prone to auditory distractions as well as auditory miscues. For some students, visual tracking challenges may manifest as skipping occasional words as they read, sometimes missing written details or instructions or miscomprehending what they have read. Irregularities with visual tracking sometimes have an impact on reading fluency due to disruptions in the thread of ideas as sentences have to be re-read or are not fully understood. This may make it so that students struggle to get the big picture when reading more complex literature, affecting skills such as inferring and judging validity.
Proprioception is our own sense of our body in space as well as our sense of self in relationship to our surroundings. Our proprioceptive system is interrelated to our vestibular system, tactility, muscle tone, kinesthesia, vision, smell and hearing. Proprioception has an impact on vital activities such as sleep, attention, and social interactions. Proprioception also supports the development of visual functions, in particular visual-spatial awareness. Students with proprioceptive inefficiencies will sometimes report not feeling rested, even after having slept. The academic and social implications range from difficulty taking notes or copying off the board, challenges with summarizing readings, remembering and following multi-step directions, understanding social cues and social boundaries, and feeling comfortable learning a new game or sport. For students with proprioceptive issues, we build in targeted exercises to strengthen their underlying systems while also providing families with interventions they can do at home to continue supporting proprioceptive optimization and efficiency.
Growth Mindset Enhancement
Students with learning challenges receive a great deal of feedback from the school system about how they are NOT doing well. In addition to the fact that most unique learners would actually do quite well with a little bit of targeted support, the metrics that the system chooses to use are often not fair representations of a unique learner’s true ability. Over time, the feedback from school can result in challenges with self-esteem and damaged self-confidence. Our program for unique learners helps address these challenges by incorporating “Growth Mindset” exercises. These exercises allow each student to rebuild and strengthen their self-esteem and confidence by placing their personal challenges in context and transforming current challenges into future opportunities for learning, growth and joy. Students who move from the traditional “fixed” mindset to a Growth mindset will report less stress, improved self-esteem and a greater willingness to try and explore new activities and social settings.
Some kids have a really tough time getting organized and starting tasks. Planning, focusing and using working memory can be big challenges too. Use this visual guide to see how executive functioning issues can affect a child’s daily life.