Executive functioning is a term psychologists use to describe the many tasks our brains perform that are necessary to think, act, and solve problems. Executive functioning includes tasks that help us learn new information, remember and retrieve the information we’ve learned in the past, and use this information to solve problems of everyday life. A person’s executive functioning skills make it possible for him to live, work, and learn with an appropriate level of independence and competence for his age.
Executive functioning allows us to access information, think about solutions, and implement those solutions. Because executive functioning is a theory and not a fully defined, documented, and verified idea, psychologists have differing opinions about what mental processes are involved. However, we’ll give it a shot. Executive functioning may involve abilities such as:
- Estimating and visualizing outcomes;
- Analyzing sights, sounds, and physical sensory information;
- Perceiving and estimating time, distance, and force;
- Anticipating consequences;
- Mentally evaluating possible outcomes of different problem-solving strategies;
- Ability to choose actions based on the likelihood of positive outcomes;
- Choosing the most appropriate action based on social expectations and norms; and
- Performing tasks necessary to carry out decisions.
That’s an impressive list, and most of us do this without knowing it. In people without executive functioning problems, the brain performs these tasks quickly in the subconscious, often without their awareness.
In a sense, executive functioning is almost like instinct.
People with executive functioning problems do not perform these tasks intuitively. They have difficulty with planning, organizing and managing time and space. They also show weakness in working memory.
As with many other types of learning disorders, executive functioning problems can run in families.
Executive functioning weaknesses can be seen at any age but become more obvious as children reach mid to upper elementary grades.
How It Affects Learning
In school, at home or in the workplace, we’re called on all day to self-regulate behavior. This is a challenge for people with executive functioning challenges. Here are some signs to look for:
- Difficulty planning and completing projects;
- Problems understanding how long a project will take to complete;
- Struggling with telling a story in the right sequence with important details and minimal irrelevant details;
- Trouble communicating details in an organized, sequential manner;
- Problems initiating activities or tasks, or generating ideas independently; and
- Difficulty retaining information while doing something with it such as remembering a phone number while dialing.
How Problems With Executive Functioning Are Identified
There is no agreed-upon assessment that measures all of the different features of executive functioning. Careful observation and working closely with a special education teacher are helpful in identifying executive functioning problems.
What Are Some Strategies to Help?
There are many effective strategies that may help. Here are just a few:
- Give clear step-by-step instructions with visual organizational aids. Children with executive functioning disorders may not make logical leaps to know what to do. Be as explicit as possible with instructions. Use visual models and hands-on activities when possible. Adjust your level of detail based on the student’s success.
- Use planners, organizers, computers, or timers.
- Provide visual schedules and review them at least every morning, after lunch, and in the afternoon. Review more frequently for people who need those reminders.
- Pair written directions with spoken instructions and visual models whenever possible.
- If possible, use a daily routine.
- Create checklists and “to do” lists.
- Use positive reinforcement to help kids stay on task.
- Break long assignments into smaller tasks and assign mini-timelines for completion of each. If children become overwhelmed with lists of tasks, share only a few at a time.
- Use visual calendars or wall planners at to keep track of long-term assignments, deadlines, and activities.
- Adults and teens may find time management planners or software such as the Franklin Day Planner, Microsoft Outlook calendar, and task lists, or Palm Pilot helpful. If possible, try before you buy to ensure effectiveness.
- Organize the workspace, and minimize clutter on a weekly basis.
- Consider having separate work areas with complete sets of supplies for different activities. This reduces time lost while searching around for the right materials for a task.
- Try to keep your strategies consistent across classrooms, at home, or in the workplace. People with executive functioning disorders are more likely to do well when their routines are similar in different settings.
As with all interventions, it is important to be aware of how they affect the person with executive functioning disorder. If the person is not helped with the strategy or is making no progress after a reasonable amount of time, look for a better way. Older children and adults may be able to help identify more effective strategies or ways to adjust strategies for more effectiveness. Considering their preferences is an important part of developing an appropriate intervention program. One of the most important things to remember about executive functioning disorders is that this is as much of a disorder as any other. Although it is an invisible disability, it can have a profound effect on all aspects of a person’s life. Be prepared to share this information with teachers, co-workers, or supervisors as needed to ensure the disorder is not mistaken for laziness or carelessness.