What is Executive Functioning and How Does it Affect Learning?

executive function, learning

Is your child struggling in school?  “Refusing” to complete chores at home?  Is homework an epic battle every night?  Does your child complete the homework but forget to turn it in?  Does your child’s desk, bag, and room look like they were hit by a tornado?  Are their emotions intense and unpredictable?  Do you find yourself referring to them as “lazy”?  Perhaps the reason is a weakness in executive functioning.

If a child were an airplane, executive functions (EFs) would be the pilot. While many parts and processes of a plane may be in good working order, only the pilot can set a destination, take off, steer the plane where it needs to go, address any issues along the way, and land safely.  Without a skilled pilot, the plane is nothing more than a complex assembly of hi-tech parts and equipment sitting idly in a hangar.

executive function, learning

Executive Function is the Brains Pilot

Similarly, our brains are powerful and complex mechanisms.  But without efficient EFs, individuals may find it difficult to achieve even the simplest goals.  From fixing a lunch, to cleaning a room, to learning math, to organizing a school project… EFs are needed to set and reach objectives of all dimensions.  Without strong EF skills, a child is essentially a plane without a pilot.

Though the term EF is often described as a singular brain function, it is in fact comprised of multiple, interconnected, complex skills and abilities—so much so that even the experts cannot not agree on a single EF model.

Dr. Thomas Brown’s model offers parents and teachers a clear and straightforward way to categorize skills, understand strengths and weaknesses, develop interventions, and scaffold success.  Brown divides EF into 6 “clusters”:

  • Activation (getting started, organizing, prioritizing)
  • Focus (sustaining and shifting attention)
  • Effort (regulating attention, sustaining effort, processing speed)
  • Emotion (moderating frustration, excitement, anger)
  • Memory (juggling and recalling information)
  • Action (controlling pace of action and impulsivity)

The key to any successful intervention is to correctly identify the specific area of struggle.  Dr. Brown’s model provides a framework for identifying and understanding which area(s) of EF your child might be struggling with so that intervention may be tailored accordingly.

Children do not wake up in the morning and choose to “fail” at life or in school.  So why, then, is life so challenging at times?  If you answered “yes” to any of the questions at the beginning of this post, it is possible that the culprit is a weakness in executive functioning.  – Dr. Katen


©2016 Katrina Katen.  All rights reserved. Permission is granted to share this article with others, as well as to print or post it on other websites, so long as credit is given to the author.