Teaching Children with Special Needs: What the Heck is Executive Function?

Last time I talked about labeling. We've applied labels to types of disabling conditions for decades. Once we apply a name to a level of intellectual functioning, it quickly becomes something heard as a slur. We rely on labels because they help to provide a framework for discussion. The first time I heard the term "executive function," I thought someone was talking about a CEO of a big company robbing the poor to give to the rich. I assumed it was about functioning, and what other kind of executive can there be? In fact, executive functioning is a broad term to describe upper-level thinking skills. In Google's dictionary it says:

 Executive Functions:  "(also known as cognitive control and supervisory attentional system) is an umbrella term for the management (regulation, control) of cognitive processes, including working memory, reasoning, task flexibility and problem solving as well as planning and execution."

 These are the skills we take for granted every day as we look through our closet in the morning to pick out something to wear. The skills are critical to defining the thought processes that make us human. Obviously, it's more important than choosing sweater colors. In the broader category of learning disabilities, executive functioning disabilities refer to problems with a child's ability to: 

  • Stay punctual
  •  Make complex plans
  •  Finish an assignment on time
  •  Perform more than one task at a time (multitask)
  •  Use information to solve problems
  •  Analyze concepts and ideas

These tasks take place in the frontal lobe of the brain. Higher order thinking skills take place here.

Identifying a student with executive functioning disabilities can be difficult. The most comprehensive method for assessing a child's organizational abilities and determining their cause is a neuropsychological evaluation. When a teacher refers a child for a special education evaluation it is important to decide if a complete neuropsych exam is necessary. A child can then be administered tests to measure intelligence, sensory perception, motor functions, attention, and memory. This is a rigorous review and must be performed by a doctoral-level (Ph.D., Psy.D.) psychologist trained in neuropsychology, so it is not something that can be performed in the classroom.


We can strengthen these abilities in the classroom with training. You can learn more about the degree of the disability as part of an overall neurological test.

It is fair to say the skills involved are very important for a child to master. Maturity does play a role here; we've all had students who are behind their peers in decision-making abilities.

Here are some resources that might shed light on the subject:

Neva Fenno, M.S.Ed., MLI 

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