Supporting K-12 Learners: The Importance of Executive Functioning Development

By Suchi Deshpande
April 18, 2023

Executive dysfunction is a critical issue that affects learners of all abilities and intelligence levels yet is often overlooked in schools and at home. Despite its significant impact on academic and life-long success, executive functioning development for K-12 learners has slowed down in recent years due to factors such as trauma, anxiety and stress.

For the second year in a row, Learnfully has conducted its annual State of Neurodiversity report, surveying hundreds of educators and parents about the learners in their lives. This report highlights the need for holistic intervention methods such as educational and executive functioning therapy, both of which address the root cause of learning difficulties and help learners get ahead by improving cognitive processes.

While last year’s report focused on children’s evolving needs in the wake of the pandemic, this year’s specifically looked at how the aftermath continues to affect learners at all levels and how schools and parents can get them back on track. In this report, we’ll examine the current state of neurodiversity in school-aged children and how we can best support neurodiverse learners.

The peak of the pandemic is now in the past, yet the lasting effects of the disruption are undeniable in the present. 

Disruption caused by the pandemic has the most impact on K-12 learners due to elevated stress and anxiety levels caused by trauma-based factors such as school disruptions, social isolation, increased family stress, uncertainty and fear. The rise in school shootings amplifies this trauma, exacerbating all aforementioned factors.

One of the most troubling statistics today is that depression and anxiety in youth doubled compared to pre-pandemic levels. The actual numbers are perceived to be higher causing the federal government to prioritize mental health by passing the American Rescue Plan Act that has provided $122 billion dollars in funding for children’s mental health services.

Findings: Executive functioning development for K-12 learners has slowed down in the last three years.

Despite this new focus on mental health support, the negative effects of stress and anxiety on executive functioning development in our learners continues to be overlooked. Executive functioning is a keystone of student success both inside and outside the classroom. 

“Focusing only on mental health services is like an individual in a traumatic accident who needs to re-learn how to walk and is only provided with mental health counseling and no physical therapy.”

Dr. Sheila Murphy, SVP Education Services, Learnfully

As a society, we are failing future generations by not investing in the necessary building blocks K-12 learners need to reconstruct their executive functioning systems and gain vital skills that directly influence future outcomes.

What is executive functioning and who does it affect?

Executive functioning is a set of cognitive processes that help us plan, organize, set goals, monitor progress and manage time and emotions effectively. It is critical for academic, career and life-long success as it enables us to navigate new environments, learn new information and plan and achieve our goals.

Executive dysfunction affects individuals of all ability levels, from neurodiverse learners to those identified as neurotypical. In fact, some neurotypical learners may be especially impacted because they are most vulnerable to environments with negative outcomes leaving them at risk of giving up and not reaching their potential if they are not given strategies to cope. Universal skills such as attention span, working memory, independence, organization and time management were not frequently used during at-home schooling, causing a major decline in academic performance.

How is executive dysfunction different from learning differences? 

  • 20% of learners have a diagnosed learning difference
  • Nearly 45% of learners have executive dysfunction

A learning difference refers to a diagnosis where learners consume and process information differently. This impacts the executive functioning system as they often co-occur. However not everyone with executive dysfunction has a learning difference. While the underlying cause and severity may vary, executive dysfunction impacts individuals in many different ways. 

The problem

Executive dysfunction is not just for kids in special education. It is often seen in those learners who are struggling to reach their potential in general education. 

  • 58% of parents think their learner(s) struggle with executive dysfunction
  • 85% of educators have/had students struggling with executive functioning in their classrooms

Despite these statistics, the reality remains that a majority of caregivers do not know how to support their learners and rely on schools to take the lead and fulfill this need. In fact, a majority of parents believe that this need is being met when in reality, a small percentage of educators have been trained in executive functioning by their schools.

  • 42% of parents still don’t know what executive functioning means
  • 75% of parents feel the school is fulfilling their child’s needs
  • 13% of educators have been trained in Executive Functioning

This discrepancy is troubling and the lack of urgency from schools is setting us back even further.

The solution: Tutoring, high dosage tutoring or education therapy– What is right for my learner?

In order to help learners catch up, caregivers and schools are investing in learner programs such as tutoring, high dosage tutoring and education therapy. Tutoring and high dosage tutoring have been the most popular intervention methods in our post-COVID world for learners who are academically behind and have catching up to do. 

Schools often offer supplementary services such as high dosage tutoring platforms parents are satisfied with. However, the reality is far from that:

  • Teachers report 90 percent of learners with access to these services have low to no engagement.
  • 61 percent of teachers did not see an improvement in student test scores 
  • 62 percent of learners did not retain learnings or build skills

This is because learners receive instruction several hours a week for an extended period of time. It involves a lot of repetition and drilling of specific academic skills or concepts from tutors who may or may not have a holistic understanding of how kids learn. This inefficient way of repairing learning gaps puts learners at a high risk of burnout and does nothing to improve cognitive processes. 

Educational and executive functioning therapy is the only form of instruction that takes a holistic approach to help a learner get ahead by addressing the root cause of learning difficulties such as attention deficits, working memory deficits, processing speed issues and language-based learning disabilities. This form of instruction is taught by child-development and multisensory instruction experts who use evidence-based programs to set up learners for academic success by learning and retaining skills.


The last three years have had a significant negative impact on the mental health and executive functioning development of K-12 learners. 

We can combat learning loss:

  • during the school day. Academic teaching combined with executive function development offer success far beyond academic achievement. Empirical evidence supports the hypothesis that coaching can enhance executive function skills for individuals with disabilities. Students must be encouraged to shift their cognitive patterns from, “I can’t do it” to “I’m making progress toward it.” This fundamental shift reduces negativity and allows for personal growth.
  • at home or outside the classroom. Educational and executive functioning therapy are the only forms of instruction that take a holistic approach to address the root causes of learning difficulties and set them up for academic success by learning and retaining skills.

More than ever, it is important for schools and parents to help learners build executive functioning. Executive function skills not only combat COVID-related learning loss but help learners adapt to the ever-evolving educational landscape. By helping them develop the skills they need to succeed in a rapidly changing world they will be prepared for the increasing demands of a job market that emphasizes critical thinking and problem solving.

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