Executive Dysfunction is an often-overlooked source of the difficulties students have initiating, completing, and turning in their homework and class work.
Now that I have your attention, let’s take a closer look at what the executive functions are and how dysfunction might be impairing your student.
The foundations for learning are attention, memory, and executive function. While most teachers would immediately have some sense of what “attention” and “memory” mean, many were probably never received any training about executive functions. And yet without these functions, so many aspects of our functioning would be impossible or significantly impaired.
Executive functions (EF) are central processes that are most intimately involved in giving organization and order to our actions and behavior. They have been compared to the “maestro” who conducts the orchestra. But what are these processes? The whole topic is very controversial, but there seems to be a consensus that executive functions involve (at the very least):
- planning for the future and strategic thinking
- the ability to inhibit or delay responding
- initiating behavior, and
- shifting between activities flexibly
If we break down the skills or functions into subfunctions, we might say that executive functions tap into the following abilities or skills:
- Emotional control
We will consider these skills in more detail later in this article, but for now, it should also be noted that in considering executive functions, we will also be talking about “working memory,” which is not purely an executive function but overlaps executive functions, attention, and memory. Also, although “emotional control” is included in this list, it is not a purely executive function.
HOW ARE EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONS ASSESSED?
Because there is no uniform agreement on what the executive functions are, there has been no agreement on how to assess them. If we talk about particular subfunctions, however, it is possible to answer the question.
Executive functions are generally assessed via neuropsychological tests and assessments. For any one function or subfunction, there may be a variety of tasks or tests that tap into components.
If you suspect that your student has executive dysfunction (EDF), the appropriate referral would be to a board-certified neuropsychologist. Neuropsychologists are psychologists who specialize in the relationship between brain and behavior.2 Although some of the tests school psychologists administer as part of any psychoeducational assessment do tap into some of the executive functions, in my opinion, a typical psychoeducational evaluation is not adequate or sufficient if you suspect the student has EDF.
FUNCTIONS AND SIGNS OF DYSFUNCTION
Let us take a closer look at each of the functions we identified earlier, and consider what dysfunction might look like. In looking at this chart, keep in mind that there are only a few examples of what dysfunction might look like.