To understand the obstacles to students’ learning and performance success, you need not look any further than their processing ability and executive function profiles. The key here is to remember that academic subjects are composed of groups of processing abilities that are, in turn, linked with specific executive functions that serve the purpose of cueing or directing the activation of those abilities in the service of performing a task. For example, the primary processing abilities that are part and parcel of reading include phonemic awareness/auditory processing, orthographic/visual processing, nonverbal reasoning (for inference and comprehension), and long-term memory. The executive functions that support the processing abilities involve activation to work, establishing and sustaining a focus, inhibiting the urge to respond to something other than the reading assignment, adequate processing speed, and shifting to allow movement from one part of the reading assignment to another. Any breakdowns in either the processing skills or executive functions will result in reading difficulties.
The strength of a neurocognitive approach lies in breaking down the primary ability areas further into the narrow abilities that comprise each domain. Here is where the detective work begins. For example, language processing is a primary ability area. It is not sufficient to obtain a score from tests on just this primary ability area because within the domain of language processing there are various narrow skills that may be responsible for students’ difficulties. For instance, lexical knowledge is a narrow ability that encompasses the fund of acquired vocabulary a student has stored in long term memory. It is not uncommon for many students to have average or above average ability in this narrow ability area. Yet, in another narrow ability area, verbal reasoning, which is the skill needed to think and write in a more abstract way, these students falter. Thus, they would do better on vocabulary and spelling tests which rely on rote memory, but struggle when it comes to reading comprehension and making the inferences involved in more conceptual thinking.
Getting to the bottom of students’ learning problems requires this kind of detective work which can be thought of a peeling back the layers of an onion where the starting point are the primary abilities in the top layer and then going further to the layers underneath to get to the narrow ability areas that can be interfering with learning and performance.
Similarly, analyzing the many executive functions-brain processes that cue and direct the activation of the abilities-is of equal importance. For example, there are students whose academic abilities are sound. However, deficits in executive functions like attention, activation to work, or inhibition may leave them adrift, relegated to “spacing/zoning out” and to frequent periods of distractibility, all of which causes them to miss out on instruction. Another common problem occurs when students with an adequate vocabulary are unable to generate an adequate amount of verbiage because of problems with the executive function of planning and organization when faced with demands in producing narrative writing. Thus, these students do not have a learning problem (i.e. a learning disability), but have an executive function deficit (i.e. a producing problem). Writing is a complex skill where executive function deficits in the form of students being unable to get the ideas in their heads onto paper are a common complaint.
The most comprehensive and scientifically valid approach to investigating ability and executive functioning deficits is a neuropsychological evaluation. This kind of assessment not only identifies students’ patterns of strengths and weaknesses, but links these to accommodations and instructional practices that target these specific areas. Generating concrete and practical strategies that target a students’ weaknesses offer teachers, parents, and tutors with the most effective ways to address learning and performance problems.