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: