Executive Function

Executive functions (EFs) are defined and discussed, with regard to their impact on student behaviour, in the Ministry of Education’s document, Caring and Safe Schools in Ontario: Supporting Students with Special Education Needs Through Progressive Discipline, Kindergarten to Grade 12 [1].

“The term “executive function” is used to describe a set of cognitive processes that help students connect past experiences with present actions. Students use executive function when they perform such activities as planning, organizing, strategizing, and paying attention to and remembering details. Executive function also enables students to manage their emotions and monitor their thoughts in order to work more efficiently and effectively [2]. Students with executive function deficits have difficulty with planning, organizing, and managing time and space. They also show weakness with working memory, which is an important tool in guiding one’s actions.” – p.25

Click here to access the document Caring and Safe Schools in Ontario. 

Listen to the following clip from the LD@school podcast, TalkLD, in which Dr. Marie-Josée Gendron, Ph.D., C.Psych describes what executive functions are and how deficits in executive function can impact learning.

Click here to access the transcript for this audio clip.

Click here to listen to the TalkLD podcast episode "Executive Functioning Explained: Recognizing, Understanding, Supporting", in its entirety. 

The specific skills encapsulated within the executive functions vary depending on the source referenced; however, they usually include some variation of:

  • Working memory
  • Task initiation
  • Organization
  • Planning and prioritization 
  • Self-monitoring
  • Cognitive flexibility
  • Emotional control
  • Impulse control or response inhibition

Other research may include attention, time-management, goal-directed persistence, metacognition, and other skills in their definition of executive function. 

Executive functions develop throughout childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood and it is normal to see natural variation of strength and weakness in different individuals. Many students, both with and without LDs, experience difficulties with executive functioning skills. In fact, even the most capable students, and most adults, have one or two weak EFs that will impair performance to some extent. However, students with LDs, ADD, autism, giftedness, fetal alcohol syndrome, and low socio-economic status often have especially poor EFs [3].

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.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), on the other hand, by definition, involves difficulties in executive functioning. The symptoms of ADHD are intricately linked to 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 [4] are all directly related to executive functioning skills. 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” [5].

The more teachers ask of students, the more they challenge their executive functions. These EF skills work alongside creativity and intellect to enable adaptive responses to novel or complex situations. They allow students to express their gifts and talents, learn at school, thrive in the workplace, and enjoy healthy relationships.

To further exacerbate the problem, everyday factors such as over-exposure to screens, lack of exercise, improper sleep or nutrition, sickness [6] can suppress EFs. Recently, experts have warned that high or “toxic” levels of stress have a negative impact on EFs [7] and may even cause permanent impairment [8] that creates patterns of lackluster performance, misbehavior, or dramatic over-reaction in response to the least sign of negative feedback. As they compound, unusually weak EFs are associated with academic failure, troubled relationships, anxiety, depression, conduct disorders, health problems, risky behavior, and, eventually, incarceration [9]. EFs, so vital to both short and long-term school success, are susceptible to all kinds of threats; students with LDs are often starting this perilous journey at a disadvantage.

Intervening with Activated Learning

“Activated Learning” (AL) is an adaptive executive function intervention that aims to facilitate high-impact teaching and learning that is necessary for some and good for all in typical classrooms. AL is a self-regulated learning pedagogy that, among other benefits, allows teachers to support students with LDs as part of their everyday teaching. 

Activated Learning is very simple. It asks teachers to add a 5-minute metacognitive discourse to their whole-class instruction, in which students and teachers discuss the EF obstacles they will face in specific assignments and co-create strategies to be successful. Then, students receive feedback and assessment on their achievement of the agreed-upon strategies. These processes can occur at any time of the day, as often as needed.

AL makes use of well-established instructional practices such as inquiry-based teaching (What will we struggle with?), co-created goals (What will we do to overcome our challenges?), and meaningful feedback and assessment (I’m going to hold you accountable and track your use of that strategy!). In practice, this metacognitive troubleshooting session will take place when a teacher feels that the class, as a whole, is unable to self-regulate their learning. It sounds like this:

TEACHER: You seem to be having difficulty with these math problems. What are your obstacles? What is difficult about this task?

STUDENTS: We’re rushing and forgetting to do certain steps.

TEACHER: That sounds like inhibition. Am I right? What else?

STUDENTS: For me, it is hard because my numbers get all jumbled up.

TEACHER: That sounds like organization. Am I right?

(Further discussion, during which the teacher elicits other obstacle ideas and encourages class to connect them to executive functioning.)

TEACHER: What strategies can we use to overcome these obstacles?

(Discussion, during which the teacher charts a variety of strategy ideas for the student/s.)

TEACHER: You have suggested several strategies that might work. I will be watching to see which strategy you choose and use. I will be making notes!

Activated Learning (AL) is a feasible process for EF-based instruction, feedback, and assessment. In partnership with their teachers, “Activated” learners use a series of mechanisms shown to promote feelings of hopefulness, competence, control, and autonomy to more independently act upon their intellectual and creative potential.

[1] Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010

[2] Dawson & Guare, 2004

[3] Tau & Peterson, 2010

[4] CADDRA, 2014

[5] Dawson & Guare, 2012

[6] Swing, Gentile, Anderson, & Walsh, 2010

[7] Southern Education Foundation, 2015

[8] Bethell, Newacheck, Hawes, & Halfon, 2014; Burke, Hellman, Scott, Weems, & Carrion, 2011; Hostinar, Stellern, Schaefer, Carlson, & Gunnar, 2012; Shonkoff & Garner, 2012; Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000

[9] Hackman & Farah, 2009; Moffitt et al., 2011