Executive Functioning

What is Executive Function?

Executive function is the person’s ability to organise, analyse, plan and successfully complete the tasks they want or need to do in their lives. This system allows us to sustain attention when needed, remember instructions, organise materials, schedule our time effectively and juggle multiple tasks successfully.

It can be visualised as the air traffic control system of the brain. Just as an air traffic control system at a major airport must manage the constant arrivals and departures of flights on multiple runways, the executive function system allows us to filter distractions, prioritise tasks, set goals and control any negative impulses that may interfere with our performance.

Good performance in these areas depends on three major skill areas:

  • Working Memory which helps to retain and manipulate information
  • Mental Flexibility which is useful to sustain or shift attention in response to the demands of the environment
  • Self-control which helps set priorities and resist impulsive actions

The effects of Executive Function on school performance

Students with executive dysfunction can find everyday tasks very challenging. Materials and textbooks are not available when needed, sports kits are forgotten, homework and projects are left to the last minute then become a cause of major anxiety, the school bus is missed, emotions are hard to regulate, following a schedule or timetable can be very challenging and performing in standardised tests can be very difficult indeed.

These students’ report cards are often filled with comments such as “can do better,” “lazy,” “forgetful,” and “not meeting potential.” Their ability is recognised by those around them but they have difficulty demonstrating that when required. These skills have a massive impact on the grades a child achieves but are frequently overlooked.

These skills are important throughout education but, as students advance to higher grades, the increasing complexity and greater level of independence means these skills are more and more important as the child moves through high school and they remain important throughout college life and even into the workplace.

If these students do not receive support in developing these skills, these challenges can quickly lead to decreasing grades, lowering of self-confidence and disengagement from the learning process.

Supporting Executive Function

Much can be done to help the young person develop the knowledge and skills required to overcome executive dysfunction. Through personally tailored intervention students can build the tools they need to increase attention, manage their emotions, improve organisation and set realistic, achievable goals for the future.

The skills they develop in the area of executive function will ensure they are able to consistently demonstrate their abilities in school, increase their personal independence and self-confidence and reduce their reliance on others.

Developing executive function skills will also provide the young person with a “tool box” of abilities that will continue to benefit them well into higher education, employment and adult life.

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