Executive Functions and LDs

‘Executive functions’ is a term used to describe the many different cognitive processes that students use to control their behaviour and to connect past experience with present action.

Students rely on executive functions to perform activities such as planning, organizing, strategizing, paying attention to and remembering details, and managing time and space.

Executive function skills can include:

  • Impulse Control — the ability to stop and think before acting
  • Emotional Control — the ability to manage feelings by thinking about goals
  • Flexibility — the ability to change strategies or revise plans when conditions change
  • Working Memory — the ability to hold information in mind and use it to complete a task
  • Self-Monitoring — the ability to monitor and evaluate your own performance
  • Planning and Setting Priorities — the ability to create steps to reach a goal and to make decisions about what to focus on
  • Task Initiation (Getting Started) — the ability to recognize when it’s time to get started on something and then to begin without procrastinating
  • Organization — the ability to create and maintain systems to keep track of information or materials; time management

Difficulties in executive functions tend to become more apparent as students move through the early elementary grades into intermediate grades, with the increasing demands of completing schoolwork independently and juggling assignment deadlines for different subjects.

Many students with LDs have difficulties with executive functions, as do many students with ADHD.

Strategies for Educators

Educators can use many strategies that help students improve executive functions, such as checklists and “how to” lists, breaking long assignments into chunks, and using visual calendars, time organizers, and mnemonics.

Some examples of strategies (adapted from Executive Function in Education: From Theory to Practice, editor, Lynn Meltzer, 2007):

  • Memorization — when using acronyms to help students memorize information, the “crazier the phrase,” the better. If a student is a visual learner, make a cartoon.
  • Cognitive Flexibility — to help students improve cognitive flexibility, work with riddles and jokes to help students shift between word meanings.
  • Prioritizing — to help students prioritize information, teach students to highlight the most important ideas in a text in one color and details in another color.
  • Note-taking — to help prioritize and remember information when taking notes from text, students can use a 2-column approach. In the first column, students ask themselves questions about the text and put the answers in the second column.
  • Self-Monitoring and Self-Checking — to help students check their work provide explicit checklists for assignments, so students know what to check for, and help students develop personalized checklists, so they become aware of and check for their most common errors.

Relevant Resources on the LD@school Website

Click here to access the article Understanding Executive Function and Learning Disabilities

Click here to access the webinar recording "Strengthening Executive Functioning Skills in the Classroom"

Click here to access the article How can I support my students with working memory difficulties?

Additional Resources

Click here for an article on Teachers’ Gateway to Special Education – Executive Function.

Click here for an article on teacher's Gateway o Special Education-Metacognitive Skills.