Executive function is a set of mental skills that help you get things done. These skills are controlled by an area of the brain called the frontal lobe. Executive function helps you: Manage time. Pay attention.
You know what drives me absolutely bonkers as a teacher? The student who comes into class and starts chatting with a neighbor no matter if she is early, on time, or late. Once seated, she doesn’t take anything out of her bag. And, when pens, pencils, notebooks, or computer is needed, she doesn’t have it. That frustrates me to no end, but this student could very well have a deficit in executive functioning.
A closer look at executive functioning skills shows that they can be organized into two broad categories. First, organization helps you gather, structure, and evaluate information. And, second, regulation helps you to adapt to your environment.
- flexible thinking: People who are flexible thinkers can cope when the unexpected happens. People who don’t, have difficulty. The unexpected can include disruptions to schedules and using items in novel unintended ways.
- working memory: Working memory encompasses several important aspects of our thinking selves: (1) attention, (2) interpreting information, (3) encoding memories, and (4) retrieving memories. Because working memory directs our attention, it selects the items in our environment and inner selves that we focus on. Attention also requests information from long-term memory as it is needed, so it controls what gets recalled. Working memory allows us to assemble information into a larger whole and assign meaning to it — we use it to process information. Information that is deemed important is encoded in long-term memory. Consequently, information like multi-step directions can easily disappear without making it to longer term storage and even the memory of having written the steps down can disappear.
- self-monitoring: Students that have difficulty monitoring themselves can be unaware of their emotional or physical reactions to their surroundings. They can also be unaware of how they measure up to external expectations like rubrics and progress towards goals.
- planning & prioritizing: Have you ever set out to open a can in your kitchen and realized that you have everything but the can opener? The forgotten can opener is an example of a lapse in planning. When given a complex task or project, students with poor planning skills may not realize everything that is required to complete the project. In addition, they may not be able to distinguish between the vital steps or tasks, the important ones, and the less important ones causing them to waste time on unimportant steps that could be skipped.
- task initiation: Task initiation is closely related to procrastination, but it is more insidious. Procrastination is knowing what you need to do and not doing it. In fact, people do other things instead. However, when the root of your procrastination is a deficit in executive functioning, you are more like frozen simply being unable to begin.
- focus & attention: Deficits in focus and attention mean that the student is easily distracted by things going on in the environment or internally. These students can get stuck on one of their own thoughts being able to move on or returning to an activity over and over again.
- poor impulse control: Signs of weak regulatory skills would include blurting out inappropriate remarks at inappropriate times. These people will simply say what they are thinking. These people will also seem to have poor judgment doing things that are ill advised. They will simply do what they are thinking.
- poor emotional control: Overreaction is the classic sign of poor emotional control, but it may also include slowly recovering from the over reaction. In addition, under reacting can also be a sign of poor emotional control because the person has not realized they should be reacting.
- Taken together, these two aspects of impaired executive functioning skills can mean that these individuals have poor social relationships. Because they are having difficulty maintaining equilibrium, they can act rashly, hyper focus on a reaction to them, and end up becoming withdrawn or inhibited. These overreactions can include being intolerant of frustration and reacting badly to perceived criticisms.
If we return to our unprepared and disruptive student referred to at the beginning of the article, we can recognize several ways that the situation can go wrong. First, the student isn’t fully aware of her environment; she’s focused on what is most important to her, her friends. Next, she doesn’t remember that her teacher wants her seated and with her things out ready to go at the beginning of the lesson, so she drops her book bag and plunks herself down in her chair not realizing that she is being excessively noisy. Then, she over reacts to her teachers frustrated exacerbated correction of her causing her to sulk for the first half of the class. When notes and in class exercises are needed, she has to take her pencil case, notebook, or computer out of her bag, but she’s forgotten something important like her charger at home. So, she must borrow one, and then hasn’t turned her computer on, so must wait for it to boot up. Later, she doesn’t know what the individual assignment is because she was distracted by her computer or neighbor. And, even when she does understand the assignment, she spends too long on the reading not realizing that skimming it is all that is required. Of course, this means she doesn’t complete the assignment in the allotted amount of time.
Teachers lament that we are too lax with these students that we haven’t held them accountable and let them get away with too much. If we would be allowed to use the methods that our teachers had used with us, then these students would behave exactly as I did in high school: withdrawn, disengaged, silently suffering, constantly fearful of the next thing that would go wrong.
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Low, Keath (2014) What are Executive Functions? about.com http://add.about.com/od/adhdthebasics/a/Execu-Functions.htm
Morrin, Amanda (2014) At a Glance: 8 Key Executive Functioning Skills. Understood.org https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention -issues/child-learning-disabilities/executive-functioning-issues/ key-executive-functioning-skills-explained
Executive Function Skills and Disorders - WebMD www.webmd.com/add-adhd/guide/executive-function