Executive function (EF) difficulties commonly co-occur with other learning differences and specific learning difficulties, and they can pose life-long challenges. It’s important for those affected, their families, educators and employers to understand how EF impacts everyday functioning and what can be done to support this. For more on EF difficulties see EF – an Introduction.
Many of the challenges faced (and sometimes posed) in school and learning situations by students with EF difficulties are similar or identical to those experienced by their neurotypical peers. This is one of the reasons why teachers and parents can easily miss the signs that there is a support need. Unfortunately, all too often, the behaviours that actually signs of EF difficulties are labelled as immature, impulsive or even plain ‘naughty’.
So what might these behaviours be?
- Fidgeting or distracting others
- Calling out when it’s not ‘appropriate’
- Forgetting what they wanted to say
- Lost or missing equipment
- Delays starting work
- Distracted or daydreaming
- Steps missing or work done out of sequence
All of these are things that any child or young person (and some adults!) might experience from time to time. The difference is that those affected by EF difficulties will tend to be seen displaying more of these behaviours more often, perhaps all of the time. These are not conscious choices, and the perpetrator may not be aware of what they had been doing when they were called on to stop. Imagine the confusion and exhaustion of trying to stop yourself doing something that you do not have conscious control over! Self-esteem is at great risk.
It is likely that the individual concerned won’t understand what they have done to disappoint, frustrate or annoy their peers, family or educators. The unfortunate result of unfinished work can often mean that vital downtime is lost, as they are required to complete tasks at home late into the evening, or during break times at school. We all know that physical activity and time spent outdoors is healthy, but what can be forgotten is just how important this informal physical activity or play is for the brain. If learners who experience a heavy load on EF are kept in to continue working on academic tasks, their work and, more importantly, their wellbeing are at risk.
So what can we do to help?
Because aspects of EF difficulties impact on various skills and demands in different ways, it can be helpful to consider these separately. Of course, every learner is unique, so it may be necessary to adapt strategies, or combine them differently to best support individual needs and to make the most of students’ strengths in other areas.
Oracy and Communication
When EF is impacted, communication can be affected in numerous ways. In young children, language development can be delayed. Sometimes children will struggle to find an efficient way to communicate their ideas, perhaps demonstrating unusual sentence structure or displaying word-finding difficulties. This can go unnoticed in everyday situations, as they are able to convey their thoughts; however, careful observation may reveal these or other tendencies in speech. EF impairment may be responsible for an inability to control the impulse to blurt out answers, or potentially (unintentionally) hurtful or otherwise inappropriate remarks. A tendency to any of these might influence others’ behaviour and thus the individual’s opportunity to form friendships.
There are a number of whole class and small group approaches that can be employed to develop communication skills. I can’t recommend Talk Boost enough.
Visualisation and verbalisation may sound like 20th century buzz words, but it works. Students are taught and encouraged to ‘see’ what they hear and read, developing the habit of creating a mental image to better understand what has been said or read. They develop the skills to describe and discuss what they have experienced with all of their senses, developing vocabulary and communication skills to boost creative writing.
Literacy and comprehension
It’s essential to be really explicit when introducing, teaching and revising skills and strategies. This goes all the way back to training students how to listen and teaching them what to listen out for. Where necessary, I use listening comprehension techniques and explicitly teach vocabulary to boost literacy skills. In nursery, at school or even university, it’s not enough to have everyone sitting quietly – they need to attend. Attentiveness does not come naturally to every learner, and especially not to those whose EF is underdeveloped. Although skills may take longer to acquire for some learners, a whole class approach to this will mean that many will develop greater independence earlier on than might otherwise be expected. This allows educators to extend those who are ready and affords them time to support those who still need it. It’s win-win where differentiation is concerned.
Just because we are talking literacy, it doesn’t let specialist subject teachers off the hook! Students need to develop topic-specific comprehension and vocabulary skills for each subject. If every teacher employs verbalisation and visualisation techniques, the differentiation benefits noted above will be theirs for the taking, with the added advantage that students who shine in one subject will have the opportunity to fly, whilst profiting from support where it’s needed.
From learning the alphabet to the demands of academic writing, each step must be taught explicitly. Many educators fear such an approach will alienate their able pupils. Far from it, it should enable those whose skills are already strong to be stretched further, reinforcing strategies and clarifying expectations. At every stage, strategies need to be revisited – don’t assume that because a skill was taught in a previous unit or through another genre, that all pupils will automatically generalise and recognise that the same technique needs to be employed here, too. Displays are useful tools if used judiciously and when students are taught how and when to refer to them for prompts. Simply placing a poster on the wall and expecting those who would benefit from the information imparted to notice and be able to act on it automatically is unlikely to work.
Such over-learning can work well for many, if not all school subjects, particularly languages and sciences, where parallels and cross-references can usefully be employed to embed skills and knowledge.
Mathematics and problem solving
By their very nature, maths and problem-solving tasks at school level rely heavily on working memory and planning/sequencing, aspects of cognitive EF. Maths-specific language needs to become truly familiar. The use of physical props and displays as already discussed can be really helpful here. Explicit instruction of skills and strategies are needed, as is teacher modelling of the task, including ‘thinking aloud’ to talk through each step of a problem or calculation, visualising and verbalising, highlighting key words and numbers. Encourage students to think aloud as they work though an exercise and get them to explain their thinking once they have successfully answered a question independently. All of this will help to embed skills and promote the development of automaticity needed to avoid every maths encounter causing distress and exhaustion.
There is more to be said about displays, help beyond the classroom, and homework, which I’ll address again.
Dawson, P., and Guare, R. (2009) Smart but Scattered. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Gathercole, S.E., & Alloway, T.P. (2008) Working Memory & Learning: A practical guide for teachers. London, UK: SAGE publications, Ltd.
Kaufman, C. (2010) Executive Function in the Classroom. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
Meltzer, L. (ed.) (2007) Executive Function in Education: From theory to practice. New York, NY: The Guilford Press
Moraine, P. (2012) Helping Students Take Control of Everyday Executive Functions. London, UK: Jessica Kingsley Publishers
Moyes, R. (2014) Executive Function “Dysfunction” Strategies for Educators and Parents. Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley Publishers