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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Tsapakis

What is Executive Function - and Why is it SO important?

Recently there has been an increase in the discussion surrounding executive function, especially in the realm of special education or when talking about learning differences. It's great that it's being referenced more often, but it is rarely defined.

Executive function is an umbrella term that includes various cognitive skills that we use throughout our entire day. It includes things like memorizing, organizing, planning, flexible thinking, and self control. Struggling with executive functioning skills makes things like timing, organization, learning, following directions, and handling emotions difficult.

The part of our brain responsible for executive function skills are the frontal lobes. The frontal lobe works together with nearly every other part of our brain, and act as a sort of "coordination" system. It may not be a surprise to you that students with learning differences often struggle with executive function skills, and we can understand this more easily by learning about these specific parts of the brain.

The Brain: 101

Knowing that specific parts of our brain are responsible for specific things is important, because it helps us better understand learning differences. Our brain can be divided into multiple areas, each responsible for specific tasks. However, it is a common misconception to think that various sections and sides of our brain work alone. For example, the left hemisphere of our brain is home to the main location for language, but we do not just use this one area to produce speech (spoken language). We pull from memories and use our background knowledge while planning and forming our thoughts. We also must coordinate with the motor area of our brain to move the muscles within our mouth, tongue, and lungs before we can produce a single speech sound.

Recent medical technology, using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), allows us to actually see the specific areas of the brain while they are working. On MRI scans, areas of the brain "light up" when they are being used. Using MRI scanning technology has taught scientists that the front part of our brain, the part responsible for executive function, is lit up most often, and works as a "management system" for the brain, helping various areas function.

In other words, the part of our brain that houses all of our executive function skills is used with nearly every task we complete during the day.

What is included when we say Executive Function?

Using our frontal lobes more than any other part of our brain makes sense when you really think about it. Some of the tasks associated with executive function are:

  • planning

  • organizing

  • paying attention

  • flexible thinking or changing thoughts

  • prioritizing

  • starting a task

  • understanding differing thoughts and opinions

  • regulating emotions

  • monitoring and assessing your own thoughts and learning

That's a LOT of stuff! Many of these tasks require multiple parts of our brain to be working at once, and, when functioning well, the frontal lobes make sure that it all happens simultaneously and fluently. When there is an executive function deficit, we can see a breakdown in these tasks.

As an important and interesting note, our frontal lobes continue to develop well into our mid-twenties, and sometimes later. This is why executive function tasks can also be so challenging for all our children - their frontal lobes aren't fully developed yet!

What is the Educational Impact?

Everything. I really just want to say "everything," but I also understand that is not incredibly helpful. It is, however, true. When you look at the list of what is included in the term executive function you can see how it would impact all areas of your life, especially in an academic learning environment.

The most helpful way to understand the educational impact is to address the area mentioned above individually by giving tips for the classroom.

Planning & Prioritizing

  • Routine, routine, routine! Predictability is key here. Having a set schedule will help make this easier.

  • Use visual aids. Post the schedule for the day in a central location, and have it printed for students so that they can reference what has been completed, understand what is currently happening, and know what is coming next.

  • Give plenty of notice for assignments and assessments - even if it is just a quiz!

  • For younger students, set aside time to fill in assignment books. Having students physically write their assignments and important dates will help them remember better. It will also allow you to ensure it is written correctly.

  • Use graphic organizers to help students think through what needs to be done first and prioritize important tasks. Don't forget that down time can be a priority at times!


  • Build in time at the beginning and end of each day to prep materials and ensure students have everything they need.

  • Build in time on a weekly or bi-weekly basis to clean out backpacks, folders, and desks while organizing materials.

  • Color code materials for specific classes. This can look like a red book cover with a red folder for a specific class, and a blue book cover with a blue folder for another.

Paying Attention

  • Do not spend too much time on one task. Remember that children have shorter attention spans, and this is especially true for those that struggle with executive function.

  • Use fidgets, wobble chairs, and exercise balls to help with stimulation and increase focus.

Monitoring and Assessing Your Own Thoughts and Learning

  • The fancy word for this is "metacognition" - and it is difficult for many people!

  • Have students predict their scores before and after an assessment based on their own thoughts after discussing how well they prepared.

  • Use study guides, and have students correct mistakes in a different color so that they can focus their studying on the things they initially missed.

Starting a Task

  • Break larger assignments into smaller parts.

  • Provide checklists that break tasks into smaller pieces so that students can feel accomplished while monitoring progress.

  • Use a file folder, cut into thirds, and have students open and complete one section at a time so they are not overwhelmed by a whole page.

Understanding Differing Thoughts and Opinions

  • Talk about how certain situations make students feel, and whether or not they can notice when someone else is feeling that way.

  • Find subjects that are non-threatening (such as ice cream flavors) to point out differing opinions and thoughts to show that others do not always agree with us.

Regulating Emotions

  • Use breathing exercises.

  • Have a stimulation corner in your classroom where students can go to decompress - be sure to include games or fidgets that engage the five senses.

  • Ask your child if they are hungry. (We all know why there's the word hangry.)

  • Model regulating your own emotions in stressful situations.

In general, executive function skills are very important to our every day life. If this is an area that feels extra challenging for your student (or you!), remember that all areas of our brain can be strengthened through targeted tasks, therapeutic intervention, and accommodations.

Remember that LD Expert is always here to help, and we welcome you to reach out and schedule a free consultation if you feel that your student is struggling in school. We would be happy to share how we can help them achieve their full academic potential!


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