By Ian Matheson and Jeffrey MacCormack
With the incredible demands we face as educators, it can be difficult to stay on top of research about our students. It seems like there is a new scientific term every year as we learn more and more about the human brain.
Research in the cognitive and neurological sciences has reshaped our understanding of the nature of learning disabilities (LDs). Once referred to as an “unexplained inability to learn,” many professionals attribute LDs to be, in part, a result of a deficit in one or more areas of what we refer to as executive functions (Rosenzweig, Krawec, & Montague, 2011).
Effortful thinking is controlled by executive functions.
Maybe you’ve heard this term before, and maybe you feel you have a good grasp of what it means. It is being used more often in school settings to describe the specific difficulties that students with LDs face. The problem is that there is a lack of consensus among cognitive scientists about what exactly executive functions are (Goldstein, Naglieri, Princiotta, & Otero, 2014). In what follows, we unpack the term executive functions by providing a summary of the most commonly used definitions coupled with examples.
Unpacking Executive Functions
When we use the word executive, we are referring to something in a supervisory or management position. The word function is about action. Taken together, executive functions can be loosely understood as the actions we use to manage our behaviour.
Executive functions house a number of management actions, including planning, self-regulation, and self-monitoring, among others. These actions require effort, compared to more automatic actions that we perform seemingly without thought. Consider the amount of mental effort it takes to plan a grocery list for a family getaway for a full week compared to the effort required to drive a car to your regular grocery store. When you make the grocery list you need to consider what you have, what you want to make, and what you need. To those who drive every day, driving to a common destination may feel automatic and effortless.
Anytime we learn anything, we rely on a cognitive system known as working memory. Information from the external world enters this theoretical system and is sorted, before being processed and integrated with our other knowledge of the world (what we call long-term memory). Within this system, an active component known as the central executive is responsible for three main functions: shifting, selecting, and updating. These three executive functions are considered to be essential for learning across subjects, and individuals with deficits in one or more of these functions are therefore at a learning disadvantage compared to their peers.
Shifting refers to the action of moving between strategies, pieces of information, or tasks, to focus on the most relevant one. Selecting can also be referred to as inhibition: the action of restraint against paying attention to less relevant information or responses to information in favour of more relevant information and responses. Updating refers to the action of integrating new information with our existing knowledge in order to modify, strengthen, or replace it. Each of these functions is effortful, and each is used in different ways by our students (and ourselves) during learning.
When (And How) We Use Them
The executive functions—shifting, inhibition, and updating—are used to support our learning in all subjects. To contextualize each function, let’s consider how these three executive functions are applied in classroom settings.
In math class, Ava is working through a Sudoku problem - a number placement game that can be solved with logic. Her primary strategy is to solve each of the nine squares by looking at the existing numbers in each box. She has just correctly placed a number and checked it, but now she feels stuck. She cannot solve any missing numbers directly around it with the information she currently has. She shifts her attention to another corner of the puzzle, and shifts her strategy to look at horizontal and vertical lines in the puzzle to identify missing numbers.
Ryan is about to start an opinion piece for literacy class on school start times. His usual style includes a three-paragraph model where in each paragraph he re-states the question, explains his opinion, and includes three support points. The final paragraph is the conclusion, which emulates the introduction. As part of the class peer-feedback activity, his peers suggested that his writing sounds mechanical and formulaic. Thinking about this feedback, Ryan inhibits the temptation to use his usual style, and instead begins with an anecdote about the effects of not enough sleep on a student.
Austin is reading a passage of text about the effects of the sun on our planet. He comes to a subtitle “Why the Sky is Blue” and thinks for a moment about how the water of our planet reflects and makes our sky blue. As he begins to read, he learns that sunlight actually includes a spectrum of colours and that molecules scatter blue light more than other colours, which explains why the sky is that beautiful blue hue. As Austin learns the new information, he updates his knowledge and can’t wait to tell his Grandma when he gets home.
Executive function difficulties faced by students with LDs may affect work output.
Research on Executive Functions
According to research on executive functions, students with LDs may have deficits in the working memory system, as well as with executive functions (Rosenzweig, Krawec, & Montague, 2011). As a result, students with LDs may experience difficulty with functions including planning, self-regulation, and self-monitoring. Additionally, deficits in executive functions could include difficulties with the shifting, inhibition, and updating functions we rely on for learning.
At the subject level, research on reading shows that executive functions are important for reading comprehension (Denckla et al., 2013), where the functions of inhibiting and updating appear to play large roles (Arrington, Kulesz, Francis, Fletcher, & Barnes, 2014). In particular, updating has been identified as a predictor for both later reading attainment (Gathercole, Alloway, Willis, & Adams, 2006) and mathematics difficulties (Toll, Van der Ven, Kroesbergen, & Van Luit, 2011).
The most recent version of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.; DSM—5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013) uses the primary academic subject areas to identify types of specific learning disorders (also known as learning disabilities) based on where students’ learning difficulties are manifested. Students can therefore be classified as having a specific learning disability in reading, writing, or mathematics, or in any combination of these areas.
The bottom line is that we use executive functions when our actions are more effortful and less automatized. Granted, there is some effort used when you drive your car to your local grocery store, but not as much as is used when you are planning a grocery list. Alternatively, there is some effort used when writing an opinion piece using your classic style, but not as much as is used when you are using a new strategy and organizational technique. Think about effort and automaticity as being at different ends of a spectrum. The more effort is required, the more you are relying on executive functions to guide your behaviour. For students with LDs, unexpected breakdowns in learning may be due to deficits in executive functions.
Implications of Executive Functions for LDs
The implications of the research on executive functions and LDs can be separated into two categories—changing the way we teach students and changing how we think about LDs.
There are several strategies that educators can use to support their students that have difficulties with executive functions, such as students with LDs. Here are a few:
- For students having difficulty shifting, consider supplying them with a prompt of some kind. In math, this might be a laminated sheet on which they’ve recorded different strategies to use for solving a problem and the benefits of each strategy. In reading, it could be a list of reading strategies they could use when their reading comprehension falls apart. Getting a student in the habit of checking their sheet will encourage them to stop and think about which strategy is best for that situation. Additionally, they don’t need to search their memory for the strategies they know—a task that can require a lot of effort.
- For students having difficulty inhibiting, think about the way you present information. A student that is having trouble inhibiting their urge to look at something they feel is more interesting in the classroom instead of focusing on their task would likely benefit from a place to work that doesn’t have distractions. A student who is having trouble inhibiting the urge to use a less adaptive strategy in any subject would likely benefit from examples of more adaptive strategies in use in accessible places around the classroom. Some educators display models of work around the class that they have produced, accompanied by annotations that model the thinking that produced the work. Others use bump it up walls that display student work at various levels of achievement for the same task. Bump it up walls display examples of work on the same task at different achievement levels to provide students with ideas about what each level looks like. These can influence students to identify more and less adaptive strategies appropriate for different tasks, and therefore increase the likelihood of inhibiting the use of less adaptive strategies.
- For students having difficulty updating, ask yourself what methods you use to get students to think about what they know about a topic, and what you do to ensure that deep learning has occurred after new information has been presented. Some educators use activities that prompt students to list information they know about a particular topic, and then to consult the topic continuously as they are learning more about it to compare old information with new information. These activities could look like a sheet that students fill out before, during, and after learning to reflect on the process, or chart paper on a section of wall in the classroom on which students have collectively shared their ideas and knowledge about a topic that will be referred to continuously through the learning process. In order to consolidate all that students have learned, it is important to have supplementary activities that give students a chance to apply what they have learned. Getting students to think about what they are learning before, during, and after the new material is presented, as well as giving them opportunities to apply their new knowledge, supports the effortful function of updating.
Within each type of learning disability, there is variation between students in how they experience their LDs (Geary, 2006), and therefore educators are faced with the task of matching supports to individual needs. We don’t often hear students talking about types of LDs, and even when we refer to a student having a learning disability in reading or math, the type does not reveal much about the experience of an individual with the label given the variation within LDs. It also can be difficult for students and educators to predict what types of tasks will be difficult, and more specifically, what parts of tasks will be difficult. This can lead to students assuming that tasks related to their LD type (for example, anything to do with reading) are impossible, or worse—that learning is impossible because of their LD label.
If we are to change the way we think about LDs, a big part of the change must be the language. We need to hear educators talking about what it means when they have a student who experiences difficulty with particular functions like shifting or inhibition. We need to hear students talking about what each of these functions means, and what they don’t mean. In order for students to acquire an accurate understanding of their specific experience of LDs, their educators need to understand executive functions in order to teach students explicitly about the meaning of each function. This will require greater efforts at knowledge mobilization with regards to research about LDs, as well as more training for educators about LDs and executive functions.
When educators understand executive functions, they can teach their students to understand them. To best support students who have difficulties with learning, it is important to identify the root of the problem. Supporting students with LDs is about identifying and understanding the deficit area(s) (one or more executive functions), and providing appropriate supports, which alleviate the difficulties they experience as a result of the deficit area(s). Keeping students with LDs informed about their deficits and the supports you are providing will help them to think about future learning contexts that may bring difficulty, as well as the appropriate strategies they can use to overcome these difficulties, long after they’ve left your classroom.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author.
Arrington, C. N., Kulesz, P. A., Francis, D. J., Fletcher, J. M., & Barnes, M. A. (2014). The contribution of attentional control and working memory to reading comprehension and decoding. Scientific Studies of Reading, 18, 325-346. doi: 10.1080/10888438.2014.902461
Denckla, M. B., Barquero, L. A., Lindstrom, E. R., Benedict, S. L., Wilson, L. M., & Cutting, L. E. (2013). Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, executive function, and reading comprehension: Different but related. In H. L. Swanson, K. R. Harris, & S. Graham (Eds.), Handbook of learning disabilities (pp. 155–168). New York: Guilford Press.
Gathercole, S. E., Alloway, T. P., Willis, C., & Adams, A-. M. (2006). Working memory in children with reading disabilities. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 93, 265-281. doi: 10.1016/j.jecp.2005.08.003
Geary, D. C. (2006). Learning disabilities in arithmetic: Problem-solving differences and cognitive deficits. In H. L. Swanson, K. R. Harris, & S. Graham (Eds.), Handbook of learning disabilities (pp. 199–212). New York: Guilford Press.
Goldstein, S., Naglieri, J. A., Princiotta, D., & Otero, T. M. (2014). Introduction: A history of executive functioning as a theoretical and clinical construct. In S. Goldstein & J. A. Naglieri (Eds.), Handbook of Executive Functioning (pp. 3-12). New York: Springer.
Rosenzweig, C., Krawec, J., & Montague, M. (2011). Metacognitive strategy use of
eighth-grade students with and without learning disabilities during mathematical problem solving: A think-aloud analysis. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 44, 508-520. doi: 10.1177/0022219410378445
Toll, S. W., Van der Ven, S. S., Kroesbergen, E. H., & Van Luit, J. E. (2011). Executive functions as predictors of math learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 44, 521-532. doi: 10.1177/0022219410387302.
Related Resources on the LD@school Website:
Jeffrey is a PhD student at the Faculty of Education, Queen's University, with a focus on cognition. He is a teacher certified by the Ontario College of Teachers with 9 years of experience teaching elementary school. He worked as an instructor at Queen's University and has taught and authored online courses for educators. He is currently conducting research on several topics including: learning disabilities, autism, emotional well-being, and youth development.
Ian Matheson is a graduate student in the PhD program in Education at Queen's University with a focus in Learning and Cognition. Along with teaching and research experience at Queen's University, Ian also has experience as an occasional teacher with the Limestone District School Board in the elementary division.