Understanding & Recognizing Executive Function Challenges

By Letha McLaren
May 15, 2021

My son has always been a good student.  Teacher feedback over the years has been consistent: “He’s a delight in the classroom! He’s attentive, participates and loves to learn!”  He even gets straight A’s most of the time – but he has always struggled in school.  Every year, he has struggled with completing assignments on time, test taking and reading comprehension. He’s always tested very poorly, not because he doesn’t know the answers or material, but because he runs out of time on every test. It takes him three hours to do homework at night, when his teacher says it should take him 30 minutes. I recall one teacher telling us, “It’s not like he isn’t paying attention, when I tell the students to start the assignment or test, your son sits and stares at the paper and his pencil for a long time before eventually starting.”  What the teacher didn’t tell me then — but what I know now — is that my son has executive function challenges. 

“Executive Functioning skills” isn’t a term I knew before digging into my son’s struggles in the classroom. The term “Executive Functioning” or “EF” has been around since the 1970s (prefrontal cortex and all that) and it’s basically defined as the skills needed to perform daily tasks. It includes skills like paying attention, organizing, planning, starting tasks, regulating emotions, and self-monitoring. The importance of its role in academics has gained support in recent years.  Interventions targeting executive function skills, in fact, have skyrocketed in recent years.  

Most recently, there’s quite a bit of discussion in educational communities around the impacts of the pandemic on executive function development. As learners have been at home, it may be easier for students to manage time without having to make the trip to school — but may have stunted learning of EF skills as well.  While all learners and situations are different, below are a few common signs of executive functioning weaknesses.

  • Difficulty starting or completing tasks
  • Inability to organize or plan for future events 
  • Trouble with listening or paying attention
  • Difficulty solving problems
  • Challenged by learning or processing new information
  • Inability to control emotions or impulses
  • Trouble with completing tasks in a timely manner

These symptoms can lead to poor performance at school or work, low self-esteem, lack of engagement and motivation, and avoidance of taking on tasks and/or responsibilities. The good news is that there are very practical strategies and readily available tools/games that can help with these everyday challenges. Strategies like bedtime checklists, goals calendars, and board games that can help strengthen EF skills (and are fun for kids).

Professional expertise can also be helpful, especially when executive functioning weaknesses significantly impact your child’s self-esteem or creates anxiety. Experts generally recommend a range of strategies including occupational, speech or mental health specialists. Now that my son is a teenager, I find it a bit harder for me to work with him on these particular struggles (as you see here, I talk to a lot of hands). Sometimes it is helpful to have an outside person or coach in their life to provide frequent check-ins, real-time guidance, and mentoring to increase the efficacy of strategy building. Sure, parents can absolutely tackle aspects of EF. But having someone else who is trained and skilled and can be the bridge from learner to home and school application is HUGE.

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