When Accommodations Are Not Enough:
Addressing Executive Functioning in School
Executive functioning is a complex mixture of eight cognitive skills that our minds must coordinate to achieve everyday tasks. Cognitively, we must attend to and organize information, motivate ourselves to plan an outcome, follow the plan, manage frustration and other emotional reactions if the result does not come easily – particularly if the matter is one of low interest – monitor our progress, and shift to a different approach if our desired outcome is not achieved. Executive functioning skills include:
Addressing these needs is a complex process that involves a coordination of services, including direct instruction, behavior modification techniques, counseling, accommodations, and modifications inside and outside of the classroom. The IDEA and Section 504 do not require parents to medicate their children in order to obtain appropriate services, as school districts are required to address all of the student’s educational needs regardless of pharmaceutical interventions.
A student’s program may rely exclusively on accommodations and program modifications to address executive functioning needs, including offering a Section 504 Service Agreement instead of an IEP. A Section 504 Service Agreement can offer extra time on tests, the ability to hand in an assignment after the due date, an extra set of books at home, posting assignments online, providing the student teacher notes, tapping on the student’s desk to maintain their attention, and/or helping the student complete an assignment book. This approach may be appropriate and sufficient for some students. However, if your child continues to struggle, direct instruction through an IEP that teaches the student to manage and independently utilize techniques to compensate for his or her disability may be necessary.
Direct instruction teaches your child to independently perform and compensate for executive functioning needs without relying on a teacher, staff or parent to perform these skills. Learning to accomplish these skills independently may take several years as the student learns to transition from reliance on others to performing these tasks themselves. An IEP may include a positive behavioral support plan inside the classroom to help the student learn to independently sustain attention, monitor his or her ability to stay on task, and remember to write down notes and assignments in class as the instruction is occurring. Outside of the classroom, the student should be explicitly taught to break assignments into smaller chunks, learn how to study for a test, self-motivate to complete tasks in a timely manner (particularly if the task is one of low interest), monitor progress toward completing assignments and readjust their schedule or approach if necessary. Some students may also require counseling services to better understand the impact of executive functioning on their ability to accomplish tasks, and learn self-motivation advocacy.
As students move to middle and high school, reliance on executive functioning skills increase dramatically. With the correct instructional program, students can achieve success as they progress towards their post secondary goals.