We hear it all the time: “my kid has executive function issues” or “my student struggles with executive functions.” But what does that actually mean?
To help illuminate the concept of executive functions, our CEO and Co-Founder, Jay Bacrania, conducted an interview with Dr. Bonnie Singer in the spring of 2017. Dr. Singer is a researcher and educator whose practice helps students both with executive function skills and writing skills development.
Can you define some of the major components of executive functions?
The term “executive functions” is an umbrella term, a catch-all for a set of brain-based processes that help you get things done. Note that it’s plural, so there’s more than one skill involved. You employ your executive functions system in order to take intentional action, which just means something done on purpose. That intentional action could be to change a tire, take a shower, or write a thesis.
Five key skills that researchers generally agree are executive functions are inhibition, planning/sequencing, organization, working memory, and emotional regulation.
Inhibition is the first skill required to take intentional action. Inhibiting just means not operating on autopilot; in order to do something on purpose, you need to mentally set a goal. Inhibition is what allows your brain to do this.
Next, planning/sequencing helps you set a course for the behaviors or actions you need to take to reach that goal, including the order in which you need to execute them.
Organizing helps you keep track of the various puzzle pieces as you move toward intentional action, particularly when the goal is complicated or requires more than a couple of steps.
Working memory allows you to hang onto that goal in your brain long enough for you to achieve it without forgetting. When you walk upstairs to get something and then forget what you came for, that’s an example of a glitch in your working memory.
The fifth element is emotional regulation. When you hit a snag or get frustrated, you need to be able to manage and regulate your feelings. If you’re trying something that you’ve never done before, you’re going to face some fear about it. Emotional regulation helps you move past the fear toward the goal.
All of these executive functions work in concert so that you can get stuff done. But any one of these five components can go awry, and that makes this system somewhat vulnerable. You can be great at planning, but totally disorganized, so you’re always losing track of your possessions. Or you can have an incredible memory but no inhibition, so you’re always blurting out whatever’s on your mind.
These five skills also develop at different times and different rates, which explains why kids, whose brains are still maturing, sometimes struggle with executive functions.
How do these skills, or lack thereof, influence the learning process?
You use your executive functions system whenever learning takes place. If one of these skills is compromised in its development, it affects the entire system. You need to be the air traffic controller of your brain, managing a lot of input all at once. If that ability is impacted, it makes everything, from basic tasks to complicated projects, much more challenging.
Our executive functions can be temporarily impacted by other factors: if you’re exhausted, starving, or sick, it’s harder to get stuff done. We all have good and bad executive functioning days. But some kids have chronically vulnerable executive functions, and that’s a constant drain on their systems.
Executive functions typically mature over time. The areas of the brain that are involved in executive functioning become increasingly myelinated (coated with “insulation” in the brain) as kids get older. This myelination process helps the brain send signals more effectively. Watch a one-year old walk, and it’s not going that smoothly. Watch a 14-year old walk, and it happens automatically. The same process can apply to some extent to the maturation of executive functions.
The whole executive functions system continues to evolve and develop until you’re about 25.
Kids get one big burst of myelination around 8 years old, another around 15, and a third somewhere in their 20s. From the outside, we see these transitions as kids passing from one maturational phase to another.
How do you see deficiencies in these areas manifest? What behaviors would parents see that they might be mistakenly attributing to something else?
Parents might see the fallout from an impulsive kid who doesn’t read the room well and therefore struggles socially. You might see difficulty managing homework. Often we see it play out in kids’ writing abilities, because writing is the pinnacle of multitasking, requiring you to do many things with your brain at the same time.
Sometimes we see it in the way kids talk. They start in the middle of the story, and never finish a thought; it’s impossible to follow what they’re saying. That’s planning and organizing gone awry.
These are just some of the more noticeable ones—there are many others!
How are these patterns in students often misinterpreted by parents or teachers?
Difficulties with planning and organization can stop you in your tracks and make you anxious. So while parents might see anxiety, the root cause might be “I have no idea how to do that.” Often homework is World War III: there are lots of tears, and kids spiral into thinking they’re stupid. Parents tend to attach to the emotional component and identify the problem as anxiety. But in some cases, the emotions would calm down if the student had adequate strategies for dealing with their executive functions.
Difficulty with executive functions can also be misinterpreted as a lack of motivation or desire to do well. In over 30 years, I have seen very few kids who are actually highly motivated to fail. What looks like blowing things off is often a form of psychological self-protection for kids who are out of their element and feel vulnerable. A perfect analogy for adults is doing their taxes! It’s overwhelming, it’s confusing, and we feel in over our heads, so we avoid them as long as possible.
So if a student is not doing their homework, parents should consider that the student might not know how to proceed, instead of assuming that they are unmotivated?
What can students and parents do about vulnerabilities with executive functions?
It really depends on the strength or weakness of each component skill, and on how those skills interact. A constellation of other factors, including literacy, being able to spell and calculate, speaking more than one language, grammar and number sense, etc., also play a role. In general, our options are either remediation or compensatory strategies.
Some things are remediable, while others are not. If you have limitations in working memory, for example, which is just the size of your mental whiteboard, you can’t do a lot to increase that capacity. You need a compensatory strategy to get stuff out of your head so you don’t forget it.
At Architects for Learning, we don’t have one-size-fits-all strategies, although we do have guiding principles that we use to design interventions that will be helpful to kids. Once we get a picture of what’s going on, we build a strategy of improvements and compensations based on the individual student.
It sounds like matching how and what kids study to their profile is a much better fit than pushing them to “perform” in ways that might not match their skill set. How do you have conversations with parents to reshape their expectations?
Sometimes parents come in with unreasonable expectations for their kids. Part of our work is educating parents: about how brains work, about language, and about what the strategies we recommend are intended to accomplish. We’re really diligent about having this ongoing conversation. Parents often go through a grieving process when they realize their child doesn’t have the abilities they were hoping for. On the other hand, some parents have a clear sense of their children’s limitations, and experience pain if their child is rejected by others. It’s important that we convey that we aren’t going to reject their kids.
What happens when a student is not equipped with good strategies?
They may be late, lost, disheveled, disorganized, inattentive, impaired, or impulsive.
When you start to give a kid strategies, what happens to them?
Their self-concept changes. That’s usually what matters most to parents, that their kid feels okay about themselves. When that self-story begins to shift, their experience of school and the world goes from “I have no idea what I’m doing, and I’m trying to hide that” to “I got this.” It’s really awesome.
Part of the strategy is helping a student understand which skills will be harder for them, where they’ll need to put in more work. Knowing what to expect can make a big difference.
Aside from bringing a student to a professional like you, what can parents do to foster students’ development of their executive functions?
We talked about this before, but again, recognizing that a lack of motivation is almost never the problem is very important.
One thing we see within families is that highly disorganized kids often have family members who struggle in similar ways. If you’re a parent who suffers in the same way as your student, definitely seek an outside perspective for help.
Kids with vulnerable executive functions skills basically spend their whole day “doing their taxes,” which can take a toll on their self-esteem. Have conversations with your child about the ways in which everybody is smart.
I also encourage parents to keep school in perspective. You may have a student who struggles through their schooling now, but will grow up to become a phenomenal adult.
Dr. Bonnie Singer is the founder of Architects For Learning where she provides consultation and professional development to teachers and schools worldwide. Along with Dr. Anthony Bashir, she developed the EmPOWER™ method for teaching expository writing, the Brain Frames® graphics for supporting language, literacy, teaching, and learning, and the Qualitative Writing Inventory, and Me & My Writing/My Students’ Writing scales for assessing writing.