Executive functioning issues can make learning difficult. Kids may have trouble planning, managing time and organizing. Fortunately, there are classroom accommodations that can help them stay on top of their work.
The foundations for learning are attention, memory, and executive function. While most teachers would immediately have some sense of what “attention” and “memory” mean, many were probably never received any training about executive functions. And yet without these functions, so many aspects of our functioning would be impossible or significantly impaired.
Because there is no uniform agreement on what the executive functions are, there has been no agreement on how to assess them. If we talk about particular subfunctions, however, it is possible to answer the question. Executive functions are assessed via neuropsychological tests and assessments. For any one function or subfunction, there may be a variety of tasks or tests that tap into components.
If you suspect that your student has executive dysfunction (EDF), the appropriate referral would be to a board-certified neuropsychologist. Neuropsychologists are psychologists who specialize in the relationship between brain and behaviour. Although some of the tests school psychologists administer as part of any psychoeducational assessment do tap into some of the executive functions, in my opinion, a typical psychoeducational evaluation is not adequate or sufficient if you suspect the student has EDF.
To be successful takes creativity, flexibility, self-control, and discipline. Central to all those are ‘executive functions,’ including mentally playing with ideas, giving a considered rather than an impulsive response, and staying focused. Diverse activities have been shown to improve children’s executive functions – computerized training, non-computerized games, aerobics, martial arts, yoga, mindfulness, and school curricula. Central to all these is repeated practice and constantly challenging executive functions. Children with worse executive functions initially, benefit most; thus early executive-function training may avert widening achievement gaps later. To improve executive functions, focusing narrowly on them may not be as effective as also addressing emotional and social development (as do curricula that improve executive functions) and physical development (shown by positive effects of aerobics, martial arts, and yoga).
What will children need to be successful? What are programs successfully helping children develop those executive functioning skills in the earliest school years? What do those programs have in common?
Four qualities will probably be key to success – creativity, flexibility, self-control, and discipline. Children will need to think creatively to devise solutions never considered before. They’ll need working memory to mentally work with masses of data, seeing new connections among elements. They’ll need the flexibility to appreciate different perspectives and take advantage of serendipity. They’ll need self-control to resist temptations, and avoid doing something they’d regret. Tomorrow’s leaders will need to have the discipline to stay focused, seeing tasks through to completion.
All of those qualities are ‘executive functions’ (EFs), the cognitive control functions needed when you have to concentrate and think when acting on your initial impulse would be ill-advised. EFs depend on a neural circuit in which prefrontal cortex is central. Core EFs are cognitive flexibility, inhibition (self-control, self-regulation), and working memory.
More complex EFs include problem-solving, reasoning, and planning. EFs are more important for school readiness than is IQ. They continue to predict math and reading competence throughout all school years. To improve school readiness and academic success, targeting EFs is crucial. EFs remain critical for success throughout life (in career and marriage) and mental and physical health.
Children with worse self-control (less persistence, more impulsivity, and poorer attention regulation) at ages 3–11 tend to have worse health, earn less, and commit more crimes 30 years later than those with better self-control as children, controlling for IQ, gender, social class, and more. Since “self-control’s effects follow a [linear] gradient, interventions that achieve even small improvements in self-control for individuals could shift the entire distribution of outcomes in a salutary direction and yield large improvements in health, wealth, and crime rate for a nation”.