Executive Functioning the Hidden Skills of Learning  

March 21, 2016

“He just doesn’t do his homework.” 
“ I know she can do the work she just doesn’t.” 
“When I give a direction he just sits there.” 
“She has it one day and not the next.”


If any of the above statements apply to one or more of your students they may be struggling with Executive Functioning (EF) deficits. Executive Functions are those skills that allow for self-regulation and self-direction. Another way to describe Executive Functions is through the acronym RIO which stands for restraint, initiate, and order. The specific skills that are considered executive functions are Planning, Organizing, Initiation, Attention, Emotional Regulation, Inhibition, Self-Monitoring (including Time Management), and Working Memory. Executive Functioning is controlled by the frontal lobe of the brain and is not fully developed until early adulthood. In “Smart but Scattered,” it describes how we, as adults, have to complete all Executive Function processes for our children at birth. As a child grows they start to develop their own Executive Functions at variable rates. By about six months of age, you see that they start to develop working memory as evidenced by their ability to play games such as peek-a-boo. A positive about Executive Functions is that, like reading and math, they can be taught. Teachers can use strategies every day to support the executive functioning of their students. Simple actions like showing students a picture of a completed project help to develop these skills. Knowing and using strategies that support Executive Functioning greatly reduces stress and frustration for teachers. Executive Functioning strategies can help students get started on assignments, complete and turn in homework, be more organized and experience academic success. 

According to experts, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a disability of Executive Functioning. A child with ADHD develops Executive Functioning skills at a much slower rate than typical peers. Therefore, students with ADHD need additional support and strategies related to Executive Functions. Students with Autism and other developmental disabilities also consistently struggle with Executive Functioning deficits. Similarly, it is likely that one or more Executive Functions will be at least temporarily impacted when a student sustains a concussion/brain injury.  

Teachers typically do not directly teach Executive Functioning Strategies. This is typically for two reasons. First, they may be unaware of Executive Functioning and the impact that it has on students. They sometimes believe that these students must be lazy or unmotivated when in fact the students may not be capable of completing the tasks. The second reason teachers do not teach Executive Functioning Strategies is that they lack knowledge of the functions and how to teach them. When teachers know how to identify Executive Functioning deficits and teach Executive Functioning strategies both the teachers and the students can be more successful and happier. 

Resources to better understand, assess, and teach executive functioning include:

“Smart but Scattered”
by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare
“Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents, Second Edition: A Practical Guide to Assessment and Intervention” by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare
“Executive Function in the Classroom: Practical Strategies for Improving Performance and Enhancing Skills for All Students” by Christopher Kaufman

-by Bethany Hyatt, ESU 10 School Psychologist