WHAT IS IT AND WHY SHOULD I CARE?
Executive functioning is a buzz word you may hear thrown around in the context of an IEP meeting or an educational evaluation, but what does it really mean and why is it important? According to Wikipedia, a more formal definition of the term would include “. . .a set of cognitive processes – including attentional control, cognitive inhibition, inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility – that are necessary for the cognitive control of behavior: selecting and successfully monitoring behaviors that facilitate the attainment of chosen goals.” A better way of thinking about executive functioning, however, may be as an umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation; and more specifically the skills of flexibility, focus, organization, planning, initiation, self-awareness, self-control, time management, and working memory.
As you might imagine, a deficit in executive functioning can have a significant impact on a student at school. For example, as the online resource “Learning Works for Kids” points out, the executive skills of organization and planning help can impact a student’s ability to correctly write down their homework, remember to do it, and turn it in the next day. Deficits in skills such as task initiation and focus are necessary for starting and completing long-term projects. Executive functions are also directly related to the development of many academic skills. For example, working memory skills are required for reading comprehension, specifically when a child needs to understand and keep in mind what has occurred in previous sentences and then integrate this information in order to achieve a cohesive understanding of the text. Executive functions play a role in other academic tasks, including reading fluency, written expression, and math. A school may look at some the difficulties stemming from executive skill deficits as a lack of motivation or lack of effort, and not recognize those difficulties as signs of executive functioning deficits, or executive dysfunction. So therefore it is important for parents to be aware of such signs in order to effectively advocate on behalf of their child.
Students with executive functioning deficits can require a variety of supports, aids, and services in school. When executive dysfunction is appropriately identified, school districts will frequently attempt to address a student’s executive functioning needs through accommodations and supports, which could include things like the use of an agenda book, graphic organizers, and daily check-in and check-outs with teachers, along with a slue of other supports. While these supports and accommodations are certainly important, for many students, particularly those with significant executive dysfunction, providing supports alone is insufficient. Students may require direct instruction from a teacher in learning strategies and skills to overcome the impact of their executive functioning deficits.
In order to obtain the most effective educational plan for a student, it is critical that parents and teachers work together, and with the IEP team, to identify the most significant areas of weaknesses. This collaboration will help to determine the most appropriate strategies in helping the child succeed in school.