What Is Executive Function?

Broadly speaking, executive function refers to the cognitive and mental abilities that help people engage in goal-directed action. They direct actions, self-regulate, control behavior, and motivate us to achieve our goals and prepare for future events.

Executive Function begins developing by age two and is fully developed by age 30. People with ADHD are often 30 to 40 percent delayed in their executive function development, which makes them more likely to act motivated by short-term rather than longer-term goals, handicapping their functionality and progress.

What is Executive Dysfunction?

Executive dysfunction is a term used to describe the range of cognitive, behavioral, and emotional difficulties that often occur as a result of another disorder or a traumatic brain injury. Individuals with executive dysfunction struggle with planning, problem-solving, organization, and time management.

Children and adults with executive function problems struggle to organize materials, regulate emotions, set schedules, and stick with tasks. They misplace papers, reports, and other school materials. They might have similar problems keeping track of their personal items or keeping their bedroom organized.

Those with Executive Dysfunction may experience the following symptoms:

  • inability to plan for and keep in mind future events or organization
  • Challenge in combining actions to meet long-term goals
  • difficulty controlling emotions or impulses
  • Struggle with analyzing a task or processing information
  • Planning the best way to address the task and taking necessary steps
  • Crafting timelines for completing the task and completing it in a timely manner
  • Making adjustments or shifts to complete the task

Treatment Options for Executive Dysfunction

Experts recommend a range of strategies to help strengthen the areas of weakness associated with executive dysfunction. The first method uses occupational, speech, or mental health therapists or reading tutors to learn how to work around problem areas.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, used in combination with medication to treat any coexisting conditions like ADHD, is very effective at treating executive function deficits including problems with inhibition, emotion regulation, time management, and planning.

However, it must be remembered that these strategies have proven effective when engaging executive dysfunction under “normal circumstances,” not in the age of COVID. So, implementing these time-proven methods may need to be tweaked to account for some of the new challenges that have arisen in our new reality.

COVID-19, Student Trauma, and Executive Function

It’s safe to presume that many of our children are experiencing trauma, and will continue to do so for the indefinite future due to the pandemic.

Trauma can disrupt Executive Function skills, which are foundations in key areas such as critical thinking, decision making, and executing tasks (Diamond, 2013).

These functions impact how students interact, learn and respond to what occurs in the world around them. Trauma-induced disruption of Executive Function can manifest and affect school children in some of the following ways:

  • The pandemic may leave students feeling buried under their negative thoughts and fears, which could impact their ability to regulate thoughts and emotions.
  • Students suffering trauma, especially in instances where Executive Function skills were either not fully developed or were disrupted, might behave in ways that appear irrational.
  • When executive function is disrupted, students might struggle with self-narration (mentally telling ourselves what we need to get from Point A to point B), planning, problem-solving, and time management, including completing assignments.

Supporting Students Experiencing Trauma

Below are some suggestions found in an article from Teacher Magazine that may help students experiencing trauma and potential Executive Function disruptions.

Establish routine, structure, and communication

Daily changes and unpredictability can further aggravate trauma responses. Predictable daily routines and boundaries bring a sense of comfort.

Build student confidence

Students have experienced and overcome unprecedented challenges throughout the pandemic. They have also taken on numerous responsibilities, both academically and in their personal lives. Use these experiences to build confidence in students’ self-direction capabilities.

Plan for inclusion and reduce anxiety

Students have different resources at home, so progress might not look the same for everyone. Proper scaffolding and entry points are critical, along with acknowledging the difficulties they faced while in isolation.

Share and explore experiences

Allow students to share with you and with others how things were during remote learning, or what they experienced over the last months. A sense of togetherness and being heard might help students have an easier transition back to school after a traumatic time.

Validate Emotions

It is critical to remember that trauma responses can be shaped by a number of factors. These can include pre-pandemic circumstances and a particular child’s Executive Function development. Regardless of the child’s experiences and responses, their emotions should never be discounted.

Helping Children with Just a Few Quick Clicks!

Understanding Executive Function

Activities Guide: Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence

ADHD and Executive Function

How to Help Your Child Build Executive Function Skills Remotely