Executive function processes are an often overlooked aspect of special education. Strategies to address weaknesses in executive function are rarely taught, yet they are vital because they allow students to coordinate the skills and tasks necessary to demonstrate their ability. Here is an overview of what executive function processes are, their effects on school performance and strategies to overcome weaknesses in them.
What are Executive Function Processes?
“Every year Jesse seems to fall further behind! His teachers tell me that he can do much better, but I don’t know how to help!” – Parent of an 8th grade student
Executive function (EF) processes help to explain the seemingly mysterious struggles of students like Jesse. Executive function is a term that refers to several cognitive processes used to work toward goals; these processes allow students to:
- Plan and prioritize.
- Organize thoughts and materials.
- Access memory effectively.
- Shift their thinking flexibly.
- Self-monitor their work.
Dr. Lynn Meltzer, a pioneer in the study of the role of EF and education, uses the model of a funnel to explain the importance of EF for successful learning. When students are able to use these processes, they are able to coordinate (or funnel) the various tasks and skills required to complete their work; however, when students struggle to coordinate these tasks and skills, the funnel becomes blocked, and they are unable to produce work that reflects their abilities.
The Effects of EF on School Performance
“When I have to take a test, my mind goes blank! I studied for hours, but when the test comes, I’m stuck.” – 11th grade student
As students advance to the higher grades, the increasing complexity of the curriculum requires them to integrate knowledge from multiple sources. Because EF processes are controlled by the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that does not fully develop until the mid-20s, many young students, especially those with learning and attention difficulties, struggle to utilize executive function processes efficiently.
EF weaknesses look very different from student to student. Often, students who are described as “hasty,” “forgetful,” “disorganized” or “lazy” are actually struggling with EF deficits. Common signs of EF weakness include:
- Problems with long-term, open-ended tasks (e.g., using a monthly planner or writing a research paper) due to the challenge of breaking tasks down or prioritizing the various steps.
- Difficulty shifting between aspects of academic tasks (e.g., switching from outlining to writing or from calculating the answer of a math problem to checking the answer).
- Overfocusing on details and ignoring the big picture (e.g., correcting spelling mistakes but ignoring the development of a paper’s argument).
- Difficulty taking notes or outlining notes (e.g., losing track of the main idea or focusing on irrelevant details).
- Forgetting to check work without structure or guidance.
- Disorganized belongings (e.g., losing materials in a messy backpack).
- Inconsistent grades (e.g., strong test scores but poor grades on homework).
- Forgetting to hand in completed work.
When students do not receive help, these EF challenges lead to increasingly poor performance in school. Students become frustrated as they pore more effort into their schoolwork, yet continue to receive poor grades. Many students limit their efforts in an attempt to protect themselves from further frustration and disappointment. They believe that they are “too stupid” to be successful in school. Through structured and explicit instruction in EF strategies, however, these challenges can be overcome, allowing students to function at the level of their true potential.
The Importance of Strategy Instruction
“Learning strategies forced me to think differently about my homework. I started to get better grades, and I felt much better about school.” Ben, 10th grade student
Typically, students are not taught how to utilize EF processes; instead, they are expected to develop their own approaches to organization, note-taking, planning, etc., while keeping up with the content taught in their classes. Students often rely on inefficient approaches to their schoolwork, which leads to inconsistent academic performance, stress and frustration. Even when students are receiving specialized academic support, the importance of executive function strategies is often overlooked.
Through effective instruction in EF strategies, however, students can successfully learn to “unclog” the funnel and produce work that reflects their knowledge and abilities. Each strategy should be modeled for students; students should learn HOW to use the strategy, as well as WHEN to use it. Students should also be given the opportunity for guided practice to develop proficiency before being expected to use strategies independently. Students should be exposed to a range of strategies and encouraged to explore which strategies work best for them, fostering their self-awareness and encouraging a strategic approach to learning. To be most effective, these strategies should be explicitly incorporated into classroom routines by teachers; however, students can learn strategies from parents, tutors and peers as well.
Here are a few strategies to use as starting points, excerpted from Promoting Executive Function in the Classroom (Guilford Press, 2010).
- Set attainable goals that are well-defined.
- Break down goals into smaller steps and talk about alternative approaches.
- Jokes, riddles and puns are enjoyable ways of learning to shift between different meanings.
- When solving math problems, discuss a variety of approaches to a problem.
- Encourage the use of outlines, graphic organizers or webs to organize ideas for a large project.
- Use a structured approach, such as two- or three-column notes, when reading or studying.
- Develop a system for organizing materials in folders, backpacks and lockers.
- Assign a designated place for completed assignments.
- Clean out backpacks regularly (e.g., once a week).
- Provide space at home to file materials that may be useful later (e.g. old tests and study guides).
- “Divide and conquer” upcoming assignments and projects by planning to complete larger assignments in steps.
Accessing Working Memory
- Develop mnemonic devices, such as silly sentences, acronyms or cartoons, to remember information for tests.
- Stories and acronyms can also be used to remember the steps involved in larger academic tasks such as writing papers and completing math problems.
- Checking schoolwork is a critical skill. Develop personalized checklists that help identify and correct common errors.
- Try comparing estimates with answers to math problems
Successful mastery of EF processes can be a challenging process that persists well into adulthood; however, through explicit strategy instruction, students can begin to learn to develop the skills they will need for success in school and in life.