What is Executive Function?

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You’ve probably heard the term executive functioning, but do you really know what it means and how it applies to the world of learning and attention differences? Here’s a little primer:

The best definition I’ve heard is from Dr. Sam Goldstein:
”Executive functioning is how efficiently you do what you decide to do.”

Many people go further and include a list of the different executive functions (EF’s). I find this helpful too. The areas of functioning that we generally identify as EF’s are as follows:

● Inhibition

● Working Memory

● Planning

● Problem-Solving

● Goal-Directed Activity

● Strategy Development and Execution

● Emotional Self-Regulation

● Self-Motivation

It’s these skills that are so crucial in the learning process. They allow learning to happen, they allow for deeper thought and they allow for augmenting our learning with new ideas and thoughts. Deficits in any EF area can make learning just that much harder.

WHO HAS EF DEFICITS?
People with ADHD generally have EF deficits, and those with learning challenges may have EF deficits that are causing their learning challenges or exacerbating them. Generally speaking, EF deficits are something we’re born with, but some environmental factors can contribute. Specifically, consistently elevated cortisol levels can negatively effect EF’s.

HOW DO YOU FIND OUT IF YOUR CHILD HAS EF DEFICITS?
Executive functioning deficit is not a diagnosable condition and at the moment, there are no good tools out there to reliably and validly test for these deficits. Currently, the best way to investigate possible EF deficits is a combination of observations, behavior reports (from teachers and parents) and completion of rating scales, of which there are many.

HOW DO YOU TREAT EF DEFICITS?
Direct instruction in strategy use is the best treatment for most EF’s. As children get older, they can learn more strategies for management. Essentially, managing EF’s is an effortful process. Through this process, a strategy can become routinized, but not always automatic. Those who have ADHD and take medication to control it are more likely to have better access to their EF’s and therefore a better chance of establishing beneficial EF routines.

If you have specific questions about EF, leave them in the comments below.

Chelsea Wessel SloanComment