“Alex is smart and extremely capable but has a very hard time paying attention and following instructions. He would really benefit from Executive Functioning therapy!”

As parents you may have heard the term executive functioning used by your child’s educational team. If you have a child that has any type of learning difference, or one who struggles to learn in a classroom, there is a good chance you’ve heard it. New terms like this can be overwhelming and anxiety-inducing, especially if the exact problem and solution are loosely defined.

If you’ve heard about executive functioning but don’t exactly know what it means, you are not alone. Searching the internet can create more questions than answers! I’ve spent years demystifying this from a parent’s lens and here are some things I wish I had known from the beginning:

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  1. Executive functioning has nothing to do with IQ. It involves the frontal lobe of your brain which helps you access your cognitive abilities. Your smart kid, who is performing below their potential is struggling to learn because the classroom has a one-size fits all teaching style which is not suitable for learners who learn differently.
  2. Executive functioning helps you do things like:
    • remember what you need when you need it
    • organize yourself and your surroundings
    • decide how much time you need to complete a task
    • complete something once you start it and SO much more.
  3. Executive function plays a HUGE role in the foundation of learning. Your stubborn kid is not avoiding the work “just because.” They don’t understand why their peers are better at certain things and they most likely feel inadequate as they do not understand their strengths and challenges enough to advocate for themselves.
  4. Executive functioning can’t be worked on in isolation. It’s like saying “I’m training to be an athlete” but not in a particular sport when you are not innately athletic. If executive functioning interferes with the child’s ability to read and write, look into multi-sensory education therapy to help them make progress.
  5. Executive functioning challenges come in the form of behaviors. Behaviors such as stubbornness, avoiding classwork, regularly being late, forgetfulness, etc. are signs of executive function challenges. Waiting for them to “outgrow it” will only enable them to learn more of the behaviors which become hard to undo.
  6. Good EF skills in a child can look like:
    • remembering whether they need to bring a pen or pencil, notebook or laptop to a class
    • starting a project with enough time to finish it
    • organizing their toys/belongings in a way that makes life easier for them
    • easily switching from one class to the next.
  7. Good executive functioning skills in an adult can look like:
    • knowing where car keys, wallet and phone are each day.
    • correctly estimating whether or not they have enough time to make breakfast before having to leave for work
    • switching from “work mode” to “home mode” with ease
    • easily coming up with a new plan when arriving at a restaurant that is closed.
  8. Progress in executive function is not linear. Someone may improve their skills in an area but as they grow, their expectations grow as well. The increase in expectations causes the need to work on executive functioning in that area again. For example, elementary school parents may help pack the backpack each day. By middle school, the child may do this independently. The need to know what is required for school each day presents a new executive functioning challenge.
  9. Executive functioning skills develop until you are 25! If you’re getting frustrated with your child’s lack of progress, think of it as building muscle, you don’t always see results right away.
  10. Last but not least, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. It’s not uncommon for parents to struggle to help their kids as they may struggle with similar issues themselves. Or for a parent to see these struggles as normal because “they went through the same thing.” While we’ve learned to cope it’s unfair to expect our kids to have the same journey and expect the same results.

The term executive functioning may sound technical in nature but once you begin to understand what it looks like in the daily life of you and your learner it becomes much less daunting.

What you can do next

Very few people are executive functioning pros. We all have areas we could improve and areas where we excel. Kids who have executive functioning challenges also have strengths. Take some time to analyze your own behaviors and pick out your own strengths and challenges.

To learn more about your child’s executive functioning profile sign up for one of our programs designed specifically to improve executive function. Learnfully’s Executive Function Assessment can discover your child’s challenges and unlock their potential.

Sign up for upcoming executive functioning webinars here.

Executive function is like the control panel of the brain. Our ability to prepare, plan for and execute day-to-day tasks is dependent on our executive functioning skills. A student with poor executive functioning skills can have difficulty with everything from beginning a task to understanding how much time they will need to complete it. With all of this in mind, the toll executive function difficulties take on reading and writing skills cannot be overlooked.

A learner’s executive function supervises the frontal lobe of the brain. They are able to tell where, when and how to do a task and what skill is needed. Overall awareness of what needs to be done and how it needs to be done are essential skills for all successful learners and are also often deficits in children with learning differences.

Key signs of executive function difficulty in learning are:

  • The ability to do something if told but not without prompting or in conjunction with other activities.
  • Getting easily frustrated or tired by mental tasks.
  • Writing that lacks focus and structure
  • Great ideas with little to no follow through 
  • Crying easily or getting angry following a school day
  • Does something wrong only to immediately feel guilty after
  • Doesn’t know how to break tasks down or how to start

Executive functioning in reading and writing

Reading and writing involve an enormous amount of planning, preparing and executing. With even a surface-level understanding of executive functioning, one can see how a delay could cause significant problems with both reading and writing skills. Finding the right assistance for these at-risk learners is so important.

In reading, learners use executive functioning skills over time to:

  • Recognize letters
  • Sound out words
  • Decipher words with multiple meanings
  • Actively use working memory
  • Maintain focus on text

In writing learners use executive function to:

  • Recognize letters/words
  • Write letters in sequence
  • Plan for what is next
  • Organize thoughts
  • Stay on topic
  • Consider other points of view

Warning signs of executive dysfunction in reading and writing

As with all learning differences, early detection is the key to increasing a learners success over time. There are many different factors that play into reading and writing difficulties and some can be easily recognized as relating to challenges with executive function.

Some red flags are learners who:

  • are able to read but their comprehension of what they are reading is not in line with the level at which they are reading
  • can do a task if told but are unable to initiate the task independently
  • lack structure and focus when completing an assignment
  • have great ideas but rarely follow through
  • don’t know how to break tasks down or how to start
  • cry or get angry following school
  • get easily frustrated or tired with mental tasks.

What to do if you recognize these signs

First, don’t panic. There are many, many children and adults with executive functioning difficulties. You may even notice some of these signs in yourself or another adult you know. Does anyone in your life have trouble budgeting their time? Do you put off and put off a task rather than just jumping in and completing it? Do you know someone who is the first to come up with an idea but will almost certainly not follow through with it? All of these are signs of executive dysfunction in adults. They are not characteristics to worry about but rather traits to recognize and work on.

Second, Learnfully is here to help. Our educational specialists are specifically trained to recognize and work through executive functioning challenges as they come up in school work and home life. Learnfully has workshops, events and virtual tutoring options for learners at every level and is here to guide you through the process.

Check out our upcoming workshops specifically targeting executive functioning.

You can also view the full version of our recent webinar, K-12: Unlocking reading and writing through executive function here: