The Importance of Developing Effective Executive Function Skills

August 1, 2017 


Part 1: What Are Executive Function Skills and Why Does My Child Need Them?

(Part 1 of a two-part informational series: Part 1 defines executive functioning (EF) and discusses why some students have problems in this area.)

What is executive functioning?

For a basic definition, we first go to authors Joyce Cooper-Kahn and Laurie Dietzel. In their article for LD Online, they state that “executive functions all serve a ‘command and control’ function; they can be viewed as the “conductor” of all cognitive skills. Executive functions help you manage life tasks of all types.”

Cooper-Kahn and Dietzel explain that while organization is one of the most familiar executive functions, it is not the only one. Others include:

Inhibition (sometimes referred to as impulse control). This is the look-before-you-leap skill; it allows most of us to think twice before, say, starting a major home remodeling project alone at 10:30 at night.

Emotional control. Not look-before-you-leap, but think-before-you-speak! A person with healthy emotional control will not automatically respond to any negative feedback as an attack. He or she will first consider whether the criticism is warranted.

Initiation. This is the opposite of procrastination. Good initiators get things started on their own, without needing anyone to prompt or remind them.

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Why do some children struggle with executive functioning?

Executive functioning problems are emphatically not indicative of or related to intelligence. We turn to A+ Test Prep and Tutoring President Dan Ascher, M.Ed., who has had extensive experience (and success) working with students with A+’s Executive Function Coaching

Dan Ascher: Our brains develop from back to front. One of the last parts of the brain to mature is the cortex, or outer layer. The cortex controls high-level functions. The prefrontal cortex is where EF functions like decision making, planning, and managing time take place. Remember that with brain function, connection is the name of the game! One of the issues for kids who lack EF skills may be that the prefrontal cortex is not as well connected to other parts of the brain.


What is the impact of good (or poor) EF skills on schoolwork and testing?

Dan Ascher: As students confront situations where they need to prioritize multiple responsibilities, these skills become increasingly important. A lack of EF ability makes all other tasks complex. This is not like an on/off switch, however! Almost all children develop some EF skills, even if it’s at a low level: Mastery exists on a spectrum. Some students will naturally develop excellent executive functioning, while others may never progress past rudimentary skills without help. Most students fall somewhere in the middle. Teenagers typically display at least some signs of struggling with EF skills, as they are still developing, practicing, and learning. The at-risk student will lag behind and likely experience more distress and difficulty in their daily lives as a result.

What conditions or circumstances can interfere with a student’s developing EF skills independently?

Dan Ascher: ADHD kids are considered one high-risk group. Paying attention is more challenging for them, and these kids tend to miss organizational clues. For example, the teacher writes the homework on the board every day, but doesn’t specifically call attention to it. That’s something the student with ADHD could easily miss! He gets home and tells Mom he doesn’t have homework that day. He’s not lying; he really thinks there’s no assignment. He also doesn’t stop to consider that maybe it’s odd that (in his mind) the teacher hasn’t assigned homework all that week. He figures that’s just the way it is!

It’s important to remember that this is a developmental issue, not an environmental one. It’s not happening because of anything you as a parent did or didn’t do. The potential for the child to master executive functioning is there. It’s always there.

(In Part 2, we will look at the warning signs of EF problems and the steps you can take to help your child with this issue. Stay tuned!)

At A+, we are here to help your student achieve his or her academic goals. If you would like information about any of our services (including executive functioning coaching), you may reach our Client Service Directors Anne Stanley and Susan Ware by calling A+ Test Prep and Tutoring at 215-886-9188. 

Photo credit: Aaron Hawkins


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