Executive function and its importance for students

Executive function are a bit like buzz words that these days you often hear being discussed or mentioned when it comes to students.   In the work we do with students we regularly get asked about executive function and in particular what does it actually mean?

Understanding executive function and its importance for studentsimage of the brain - executive function and importance for students

A simple way of explaining executive functioning is that it is the parts of thinking, feeling and reasoning that help us to:

  • analyse situations,
  • plan,
  • take action,
  • focus & maintain attention, and
  • manage by ourselves to get things done.

Executive functions are controlled by the frontal lobe of the brain.  In those people who do not have executive functioning issues, the brain performs these tasks quickly and they are often done so in one’s subconscious and therefore people are usually unaware of them happening. 

One important point to note is that executive functions are not fully developed until an individual is in their mid 20s or later.  Sometimes students can be thought of as being lazy, unmotivated or even defiant when in fact often they don’t have the skills yet to do what it is they are required to do.  It is really important to know that it not because they don’t want to do something it is because their brains are’t there yet developmentally.

Unfortunately children with ADHD or Autism can typically have a 30% or 3-5 year delay or more in some or all of their executive function development which makes it even harder for these students to manage their academic lives as they get older and are expected to be able to manage them by themselves.  

Having said this executive functioning isn’t just something we grow into they are skill sets and ways of thinking that need to be taught and modelled to students by parents, teachers and other key influences in their lives.  Ultimately you want to encourage and support your child so you can empower and champion them to become independent and undertake the necessary skills and steps to manage by themselves.

For all students, whether they have ADHD or Autism or not, it is important to have executive functioning skills as it assists with learning independently at school and in life.

Key challenges

Some of the key challenges for many students today and in particular for those students who have executive function issues are that:

  1. it can be hard to perform even a simple task or behaviour – they can struggle to know the steps needed in order to complete a task.

  2.  they have a lack of future thinking – students tend to only focus on the now and this day only and no more than a few days ahead.

  3. seeing time can be a struggle for students – you can’t expect students to manage time if they can’t actually see it.  Students these days are surrounded by digital clocks and therefore only tend to see the present time rather than time having a beginning, middle and an end.

  4. they can easily become overwhelmed – students can become overwhelmed and frustrated by the enormity of a task or project that they will shut down completely and refuse to accomplish anything at all.

  5. some students focus too much on perfection – by doing this, and with a lack of executive function skills for some, this can be a real challenge for students to actually complete work and hand it in on time.  They are always waiting for it to be perfect and unfortunately perfect never comes.

  6. they struggle to prioritise – many students are not able to know what what to do first or in other words not be able to give something a level of importance.
  7. they procrastinate – this is typical of many students, often the figure suggested for students is that 70% procrastinate however this can be even higher for those with executive function issues.

  8. they can struggle to get started or launch – this can be a struggle for many students and therefore they never start something or if they do it is at the 11th hour with a deadline hanging over their heads which naturally creates more stress and pressure for them.

  9. they have trouble with focus – this can be a challenge in that not only do some students struggle to focus or give attention to what they are doing but can find it difficult to move focus easily to another task or activity as well.

  10. they lack organisational, planning and time management skills – these are often the ones that we see students struggle with ie the messy locker, always being late, not able to plan out homework and therefore can really affect their day to day academic lives.

The good news is that for each of these challenges there are tips and strategies that students can learn to implement and allow them to succeed both academically and in life.

For further information or to find out how we can assist you or your child and your challenges please get in touch.