Executive Function: The Engine that Could

Everyone is talking about executive function or “executive function disorder” these days to try to explain difficulties their child may be having at school or in life. It is not clear, however, that this term is being understood in the same way by parents or teachers. Moreover, there is no such diagnosis. Diagnosis notwithstanding, deficits in executive function can play a significant role in a young person’s development.

Executive function has been likened to an orchestra conductor who, with a wave of the baton, tells the musicians when to play, how loud or soft to play, and when to begin and end. Another way of thinking about executive function is as a group of neuropsychological processes that serve as the engine to drive or regulate an individual’s access to his or her cognitive abilities. Without adequate “torque,” the engine does not drive the car.

An example of this is the intertwined executive functions of activation, attention, and memory. Individuals with high levels of arousal-that is, they need a great deal of stimulation to get activated-will be unable to fully direct their attention to the task at hand. Since attention is the bedrock of learning, there will likely be important information missed. Furthermore, whatever has not been attended to can’t be encoded in memory. Consequently, teachers may complain that students learn something one day, but are unable to remember it the next day. There are other executive function deficits that can explain this common complaint. For instance, some students have very slow retrieval speed. Thus, some have difficulty encoding information while others have trouble retrieving it.

Here is the point: individuals with excellent ability can have problems functioning if their executive functions are not operating efficiently as they will limit access to those abilities.

What is a parent or a teacher to do? Deficits in executive function are frustrating and often feel resistant to remediation. Very often logical and reasonable strategies fail miserably. For instance, there are a myriad number of planning and organization problems students exhibit where they are either having trouble planning how to complete a task and underestimating the time needed or regularly lose important papers or books. Applying logical solutions like organizers and timers or color coded folders work at times, but just as often do not work because they are not utilized correctly or regularly.

Since executive functions are wiring, modifying them requires a good deal of effort to enlist the cooperation of the individual student to battle with wiring issues. First, awareness must be raised because executive functions operate automatically and while disruptive, they have a certain familiarity and are often not dystonic. That is, students may not be as troubled by these issues as adults are. An example of this is telling students who have problems with time that they will earn lower grades, not get into a good college, or try to extoll the virtues of being on time may not register as these students have not developed a good time perspective.

A second step, and one often missed, is to assess a student’s objections to “buying in” to using a strategy. This is essential in order to search out unspoken resistances. Without first understanding these obstacles to successful application of a strategy, students are likely to act out their objections by not being cooperative or compliant. It is only when you understand what prevents reasonable courses of action from working that you can achieve success. Exploring these objections requires patience and a healthy dose of tolerance as the rationales may not be logical. However, this does not make them less potent as forces that can destroy your efforts. Once you unearth these objections, you can find a way to join with students so you are not viewed as an adversary, but, instead, someone who understands them. It is this understanding/joining that builds relationships and leverage. Once this is accomplished, the probability of having strategies “stick” will increase.