Executive Function and Why It Matters In Your Instruction

Categories: Academics | Behavior

Executive Functioning

You couldn’t pick a hotter topic in education right now if you tried! It seems like everyone is talking about executive functioning, and rightfully so! In fact, I believe that special education teachers should be leading the conversation! If you are like me, your college courses had a paragraph or less on the topic. So let’s take a minute and dig into what executive functioning is and why it matters in the classroom and your instruction.

The Basics

Let’s get started with some quick basics. What I’m about to cover is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to executive functioning. Consider this the fast intro to get you acquainted with the topic.

Executive functions happen in the frontal lobe. At first glance it can look like a processing disorder, but shouldn’t be confused as such, rather it’s a functioning disorder. Take a minute and think about the post office and what the post office workers do each day. The post office takes and sends hundreds of letters and packages each day. The workers sort the packages to get them on the right truck, determine the fastest way to get the packages there, and don’t go ‘postal’ (sorry, couldn’t help myself) when the letter just keep rolling in. They have to be organized, timely, and even problem-solve when they can’t read handwriting or a package arrives damaged. Your brain is just like the post office and the letters and packages are just like information our brain processes. The executive functions are the workers at the post office – they are there to help you stay regulated, organized, on time, and problem solve! Executive functions can be broken down a number of ways, but today we are going to talk about 3 big ones:

  • Working Memory
  • Cognitive Flexibility (also known as flexible thinking)
  • Inhibitory Control (also known as self-control)

Working Memory is short term memory. It’s the ability to keep information and use that same information in a short amount of time. For example, it you need a phone number and someone tells you, you can remember and dial that number (before you panic about your own working memory and the fact you can’t remember a phone number to save your soul, just know that mental fatigue inhibits working memory).

Cognitive Flexibility is the ability to think of things in new or different ways. If you have a child who struggles with problem solving or getting stuck when something doesn’t work the first time, that’s a cognitive flexibility issue. Rigid thinkers often thin there is one way and can’t see past that one way. It’s also how we are to make thoughts, predictions and inferences. It’s coming up with six different ways to show a math problem and the answer.

Inhibitory Control is our ability to focus on what is important. Can we drown out the noises from the hall and focus in on our teacher? Can we stop ourselves from blurting out or bouncing in the chair? If you’ve ever used the word ‘impulsive’ to describe a child, chances are there is an inhibitory control issue.

The Classroom

Let’s take a minute and check out the photo of the boy working. Think of all of the skills he is using completing this basic, 1.5 Leveled Daily Math Curriculum worksheet using the anchor chart. He is focusing on the task, remembering the problem to look at the anchor chart, remembering the answer when he goes to write it, resisting the urge to blurt out answers and tap his pencil just to name a few. Every single skill just mentioned is one impacted by executive functioning. When we see students who blurt out the answer, chances are they struggle with inhibitory control. When they have difficulty remembering the answer when they go to write it down, it’s likely because they have a working memory problem and their brain moved from thinking about the answer to how or where to write the answer and they forgot what to write. A student who understands that 2+4=6 but can’t relate that 4+2=6 likely struggles with cognitive flexibility. In our classrooms right now we can probably pinpoint several problems-spots in our day that directly relate to these executive functions. Punishing won’t work here – it’s a deficit. What do we do when we have known deficit? We TEACH.

In Your Instruction

Ever teach a child to use a visual schedule? Or a timer? You are teaching and supporting executive functioning skills! The students above came to me without the ability to complete the pictured tasks. Matching takes skill, and we teach it! So does starting a task, working through and ending a tasks. Here the students have to find their tasks, start the tasks, complete the task, then put the task away. We supported the students with visual schedules, timers, and checklists. Each step had to be explicitly taught along the way. By doing so, we were building executive skills. Our goal as teachers should always be to work ourselves out of a job, meaning we want our students to be functional and independent without us! Executive functioning skills are the answer to successful, independent students!

Now that we know we have to teach these skills, I’m sure you are asking HOW? That question alone would take hundreds of blog posts to answer, but lucky for us, Sasha has an entire course on executive functioning coming the summer of 2022! If you are a Professional Development Member, this course will be your summer content. If you aren’t a member, you can sign up here for the course waitlist. In true Autism Helper style, you’ll learn how  to assess executive functions, write goals and use data to measure progress.It’s a course that I can’t wait to take and dig in to how I can strengthen the executive functioning skills of my students (and maybe even my own along the way!). I hope to see you there! 

Jen Koenig, B.S, M.Ed., LBS1
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