Published: December 17 2010 | Updated: April 23 2012
Executive function is a set of mental processes that helps connect past experience with present action. People use it to perform activities such as planning, organizing, strategizing, paying attention to and remembering details, and managing time and space.
If you have trouble with executive function, these things are more difficult to do. You may also show a weakness with working memory, which is like "seeing in your mind's eye." This is an important tool in guiding your actions.
As with other learning disabilities, problems with executive function can run in families. It can be seen at any age, but it tends to become more apparent as children move through the early elementary grades. This is when the demands of completing schoolwork independently can trigger signs of a problem with executive function.
The brain continues to mature and develop connections well into adulthood. A person's executive function abilities are shaped by both physical changes in the brain and by life experiences, in the classroom and in the world at large. Early attention to developing efficient skills in this area can be very helpful. As a rule, it helps to give direct instruction, frequent reassurance, and explicit feedback.
How Does Executive Function Affect Learning?
In school, at home, or in the workplace, we're called on all day, every day, to self-regulate behavior. Executive function allows us to:
- Make plans
- Keep track of time and finish work on time
- Keep track of more than one thing at once
- Meaningfully include past knowledge in discussions
- Evaluate ideas and reflect on our work
- Change our minds and make mid-course corrections while thinking, reading, and writing
- Ask for help or seek more information when we need it
- Engage in group dynamics
- Wait to speak until we're called on
What Are the Warning Signs of Executive Function Problems?
A student may have problems with executive function when he or she has trouble:
- Planning projects
- Comprehending how much time a project will take to complete
- Telling stories (verbally or in writing), struggling to communicate details in an organized, sequential manner
- Memorizing and retrieving information from memory
- Initiating activities or tasks, or generating ideas independently
- Retaining information while doing something with it, for example, remembering a phone number while dialing
How Are Problems with Executive Function Identified?
There is no single test or even battery of tests that identifies all of the different features of executive function. Educators, psychologists, speech-language pathologists, and others use a variety of tests to identify problems. Careful observation and trial teaching are invaluable in identifying and better understanding weaknesses in this area.