Executive functions

"I don't have my ducks in a row.  I have squirrels and they appear to be at a rave."

What are Executive functions?

These are a set of mental processes that we use in order to achieve a goal. They are key in planning, making decisions, organising ourselves. Executive functions help us to control our emotions and impulses, switch between attention from one task to another and learn from our mistakes.   They are learnable skills and they depend on three main processes:

  • Working memory - the ability to retain information and use it to guide decision making and behaviour.

  • Inhibitory control - the ability to manage ones impulses and natural or habitual responses in order to achieve a goal.

  • Cognitive flexibility - the ability to switch between thinking about different things, adjusting perspectives and priorities in response to changing circumstances.


These are self-regulating skills that allow children to complete tasks, resist distractions and impulses and focus on a particular activity until it is accomplished.  We are not born with them but do have the potential to develop them through participation in appropriate social and learning activities.  Children with ADHD exhibit poor executive functioning - they seem unable to mange themselves or their time properly.  They lose things, get overwhelmed by simple tasks and are late; late for lessons, late with homework, late starting assignments.  This leads to them being thought of as either lazy, stupid or difficult (or a mixture of all three).  ADHD children are usually none of those things - it just looks like it!  The key thing is that it can be managed.


The role of anxiety

Anxiety, for the most part, plays a similar role in processing speed as it does with working memory: students can become anxious about the fact that they are noticeably slower than other students and are struggling to keep up in class. In addition, students' anxiety can cause them to become slower in their processing, since their energy is being devoted to managing that anxiety rather than processing the information being presented. It is even suggested that anxious students will work toward perfecting the work they do complete, and these perfectionist tendencies, in turn, will slow down their output.  


By understanding processing speed and how it can impact students in the classroom, teachers can showcase a teaching principle: Provide Opportunities for Success. When teachers understand the strengths and weaknesses of their students, instruction can be tailored to avoid frustration and allow for student success. Also, research has shown that the more a person completes a task, the more automatic (and quicker) the response becomes. Therefore, in order to appropriately allow students the opportunity to participate actively and promptly, teachers  need to ensure Automatisation Through Practice and Review.