How do Executive Functions Relate to Learning Disabilities?
In Ontario, diagnosis of LDs is based on the psychological processes that are responsible for learning, including processing speed, memory, attention, phonological processing, and visual-motor skills, among others. For example, a psychoeducational assessment may conclude that a student has difficulties with phonological awareness, causing issues in spelling. Similarly, difficulties with executive functions may cause issues in reading, writing, mathematics, or other areas.
Many students, both with and without LDs, experience difficulties with executive functioning skills. It is important to note that not all students with LDs necessarily struggle with executive functions. Also, students who struggle with executive functions, with LDs or not, will not necessarily struggle with all aspects of their executive functions.
It is unclear exactly how students with LDs experience executive functioning difficulties, because it is very difficult to study these psychological processes in isolation. However, some research has suggested that “the development of executive skills begins early in life… and is associated with the development of oral language skills… especially the self-regulatory language that children use to talk themselves through tasks” (Cartwright, 2015). We also know that, although students with LDs may have the intellectual capacity for complex academic tasks, they often perform these tasks inefficiently due to weaknesses in their executive functions (Meltzer & Krishnan, 2007).
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), on the other hand, by definition, involves difficulties in executive functioning. The symptoms of ADHD are intricately linked to the various executive functioning skills. For example, difficulty sustaining attention, difficulty following through on directions, failure to complete work, losing things, difficulty organizing, blurting out answers, and difficulty waiting one’s turn (CADDRA, 2014) are all directly related to the executive functioning skills that will be covered in detail in this module. Indeed, “experts on attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have found that these skills develop more slowly in individuals with this diagnosis, with a developmental lag of about 5 years in adults with ADHD” (Dawson & Guare, 2012).
Connections to Learning Skills & Work Habits
The eight executive functioning skills are strongly linked to the learning skills and work habits reported on all students’ report cards, and outlined in the Ministry of Education document, Growing Success: Assessment, Evaluation, and Reporting in Ontario Schools (2010). The six learning skills and work habits are: responsibility, organization, independent work, collaboration, initiative, and self-regulation. Growing Success acknowledges that the learning skills and work habits may be recognized under different labels.
“Other jurisdictions may use different names for these skills; however, there is broad agreement, both nationally and internationally, that skills of this type, by whatever name, are critically important to student success.”
– Growing Success, p. 12
Just as students develop their executive functioning skills throughout elementary and secondary school, the same is true of the learning skills and work habits.
“The development of learning skills and work habits needed to succeed in school and in life begins early in a child’s schooling. As students move through the grades, they develop and then consolidate their learning skills and work habits in preparation for postsecondary education and the world of work.”
– Growing Success, p. 12
Educators’ Responsibility to Teach Executive Functions
According to Growing Success, educators should not only assess students’ learning skills and work habits, but also help students develop these essential skills.
“It is expected that teachers will work with students and their parents to ensure that they understand these learning skills and work habits and their importance. Students benefit when teachers discuss and model these skills, and when teachers and parents work with students to help them develop these skills. Students also benefit when teachers work with them to explain how these skills will be assessed and evaluated.”
– Growing Success, p. 13
For students with LDs, it is important that explicit instruction be used to teach these skills. This strategy has been proven effective for students with LDs, as it consists in using highly structured and sequenced steps, including modeling, guided practice, and autonomous practice. For more information on explicit instruction, click here to access the article Explicit Instruction: A Teaching Strategy in Reading, Writing, and Mathematics for Students with LDs.
CADDRA. (2014) CADDRA ADHD Assessment Toolkit. Retrieved from https://www.caddra.ca/pdfs/caddraGuidelines2011_Toolkit.pdf
Cartwright, K. B. (2015). Executive Skills and Reading Comprehension: A Guide for Educators. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Dawson, P., & Guare, R. (2012). Coaching students with executive skills deficits. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Meltzer, L., & Krishnan, K. (2007). Executive Function Difficulties and Learning Disabilities: Understandings and Misunderstandings. In Meltzer, L. (Ed.), Executive function in education: From theory to practice. (pp. 77-105). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Ontario. Ministry of Education. (2010). Growing Success: Assessment, Evaluation, and Reporting in Ontario Schools. Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/policyfunding/growSuccess.pdf