What is Executive Functioning?

Executive functioning skills are high-level cognitive skills that allow us to:

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Our experiences influence the development of executive functioning skills, with the process starting in early childhood and continuing into early adulthood. Whilst many students will develop age-appropriate executive functioning skills or find ways to overcome their weaknesses, some students will require additional support to develop or compensate for areas of executive functioning difficulty.

Why is it important?

Whilst intelligence defines how much a person knows, executive functioning skills determine if the person will do something and how they will go about it.

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“Intelligence is like the engine of a car; it has lots of power but it’s useless unless it’s controlled by a driver. The driver of a car controls the ignition, accelerator, steering wheel, turn signals, and brakes. Thus, the driver starts and stops the car, determines how fast and in what direction it goes, and monitors the surrounding events to adjust his behavior accordingly. A person’s executive function skills, that plan and organise everything he does, are to the brain what a driver is to a car.” (Gottschall & Rozendaal, 2011)

As academic demands and expectations of independent learning increase at each year level, students with executive functioning weaknesses may start to fall further and further behind. However, students, parents and teachers can work in partnership to improve areas of executive functioning difficulty and ensure the best possible outcome.

What can be done to improve executive functioning?

According to Dawson and Guare (2018) there are three components of a successful intervention to develop executive functioning skills:

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1. Modifying the environment

For students with executive functioning difficulties, it is important to intervene and modify the environment around the student to reduce the effect of weak executive functioning skills and enable them to be successful. Modifying the environment includes:

  • Change the physical or social environment. It is important to consider both the physical and social environment in the classroom and make modifications to support those students with executive functioning difficulties. For example, students with difficulties regulating their behaviour may benefit from being seated close to the teacher, reducing distractions, allowing movement breaks, and providing increased supervision.
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  • Modify tasks. Students with executive functioning difficulties need tasks to be adapted to compensate for their areas of difficulty. For example, students with attention difficulties may need tasks to be shortened (either in terms of time spent on the task or length of the task). Students with organisational difficulties benefit from being provided with checklists. Students who struggle with initiation and planning will benefit from tasks being adapted to be more close-ended.
  • Provide cues and prompts. For students with executive functioning difficulties it is important for parents and teachers to reflect upon how they are interacting with the student. For example, students who find it difficult to self-monitor may require frequent prompts, reminders and cues to help them stay on-track and to encourage the use of their executive functioning skills. Parents and teachers can use verbal or visual prompts or create lists or schedules for students to assist with this.

2. Teaching the skill

Whilst it is important to modify the environment for students with executive functioning difficulties, it is essential to also encourage the development of these skills so that students become increasingly self-sufficient over time. In order to teach executive functioning skills, Dawson and Guare (2018) outline the following process:

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  • Define the problem behaviour and set a goal. Identify behaviours that you want to work on (e.g., not completing homework) and identify the end goal (e.g., hands in homework on time).
  • Establish a procedure to achieve the goal. For a student whose goal is to hand in their homework on time, it might be useful to create a list outlining the steps they should follow to achieve their goal (e.g., writing down all assigned homework tasks and due dates in a diary, create a checklist of materials that need to be brought home at the end of the school day, identify if any additional help from teachers is needed).
  • Provide supervision. When initially teaching the skill, students with executive functioning difficulties require close supervision and will benefit from being shown what to do, not just being told what to do. Once the student has learned the skill, they will require frequent prompts to encourage use of the target behaviour.
  • Evaluate and modify if necessary. Throughout the process of teaching the skill, parents and/or teachers need to continually assess whether the procedure is working or whether adjustments need to be made such as providing more supervision or introducing more cues/reminders. It is helpful to also ask the student at this point how they feel they are going and if there is anything getting in the way of the plan and preventing them from achieving the target goal.
  • Fade supervision. Once the student is able to demonstrate the skill, gradually decrease the amount of supervision required until the student is able to display the skill independently.

3. Using rewards

For students who are learning new executive functioning skills (or for students who possess adequate executive functioning skills but are unmotivated to use them), it is important to put external motivators in place to encourage the use of these skills. Rewards may include:

  • Specific praise. Provide students with praise soon after they have demonstrated the target behaviour. Be specific about what words, actions, behaviours you noticed and appreciated. Acknowledge the effort that the student has put in to accomplish the task.
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  • A menu of rewards. If praise is not enough to encourage students to use their executive functioning skills, an incentive system may need to be put in place. A menu of rewards can be created where students can earn points for demonstrating desired behaviours that they can then trade in for a reward. A menu of rewards should include a range of small rewards that can be earned on a daily basis as well as some larger rewards that take between a week and a month to achieve. It may be necessary to modify the incentive program and goals if students are not having success and earning points.
  • Grandma’s Law’. Encourage students to adopt the mantra “work before play”. That is, I need to complete non-preferred tasks such as homework or tidying my room before I can engage in a preferred activity.

Difficulties with executive functioning don’t magically resolve overnight – the development of these skills is a long process that requires ongoing support from parents and teachers. Priorities for support may also change over time as students mature and encounter new challenges, such as starting secondary school and having to juggle multiple subjects and teachers. It is helpful for adults working with students with executive functioning challenges to be mindful that setbacks are normal when trying to change behaviour and do not necessarily mean that the approach being used is not working. It is important not to be discouraged in these moments and rather to focus on the bigger picture as to why changing the behaviour is important. The recommendations listed above are examples only and are not an exhaustive list of the strategies or resources that can be used to support the development of executive functioning skills. Further resources for parents and teachers include:

  • Smart but Scattered series by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare (http://www.smartbutscatteredkids.com)
  • Executive Functioning 101 E-book (https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/executive-functioning-issues/ebook-executive-function-101)
  • Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2014). Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence ,(,www.developingchild.harvard.edu)

Written by psychologist Emily Bull, 2019