The Big Picture: Executive Function

We have a lot of parents and students asking about executive function this year - What does it mean?  What can I do?  Why me?!  With so many questions floating around, it seemed like a great time to begin a blog series to fill in some of the holes, answer a few questions, and help parents and students get the gist of executive function.  So, without further ado ... 

 

What in the world does Executive Function mean?!

 

For many people, a slight bit of chaos is just a fact of life; they claim that there is a method to their madness, a hidden system that they know and understand. My brother, for example, was happy to put off his English paper until the night before it was due because “he worked better under pressure.” The same explanation applied for why he always woke up five minutes before he was supposed to leave the house for school, and why he chose not to use punctuation in his writing for a whole year in High School (and he was so good at arguing his point that he actually got away with it, which speaks for his ability to create an organized argument in the face of impending doom!). For these individuals, disorganization becomes comfortable because the task of generating an organized system for any sort of daily activity seems overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. The truth is, being a neat freak is the result of a series of behaviors, and not some innate, super special ability. Everyone is capable of being organized, if they put their mind to it (pun intended).


 

 
 
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In a nutshell, the term Executive Function relates to one’s ability to identify and create organizational structures.  In order to effectively accomplish a task, Type As either consciously or subconsciously follow an explicit series of steps to bring them from start to finish ...

 
 

Now, to relate this to the classroom, there are a few specific types of students.  There are the select few brainiacs that just get it.  They see a piece of information, understand it immediately, and remember it forever.  These kids are few and far between.  Another group of students are good old-fashioned hard workers.  Most of them get A’s with a few frustrating B’s thrown into the mix; they study like crazy, and they have well-developed, fairly neurotic systems for accomplishing their learning goals.  Last but not least, there are the smart students with poor executive function skills; their materials are disorganized, their reading and study skills are inefficient, and unlike their neat freak peers, they don’t have a reliable system to crack the “school code.”  All too often these kids are left feeling dumb, but they aren’t.

 


With the exception of the brainiacs, the academic playing field is pretty even (assuming that students do not have an underlying learning disorder).  The only difference between the A students, and the rest of the class is executive function.  Which, in reality, isn’t very fair.  Why should teachers and parents expect children to miraculously understand how their mind works, to discover useful learning strategies, and teach themselves “how to think like a brainiac”?!  In fact, that just seems kind of impossible.  So, how about we approach the situation more proactively?  By teaching students how their brain works, and what effective learning looks like, we can help them develop more efficient academic behaviors.   

 

And that will be the topic of our next post ...