Understanding Executive Functioning and Learning Differences

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The human brain is the most complex natural organ yet discovered, so much so that it takes some high-level organization and specialized operations to run it. Our brains conduct a vital task of managing our thoughts, emotions, and actions to set our goals, organize our efforts, and get our tasks done. We know this capability as our Executive Function

What is Executive Function?

Our executive functioning allows us to do what we do in life, whether small or large in scale, for example:

  • Pay attention to what is happening around us
  • Remember what we are currently doing and where we are in the process
  • Organize
  • Set priorities for what must be done, in what order
  • Make plans 
  • Start a task and keep focused on it through the whole process
  • Be able to adapt to changes that occur along the way
  • Self-monitor and control our emotions

Core functions.

This all works with three core functions that keep us moving forward: 

Shift: While there may be many bits of information streaming into our consciousness during the performance of a task, this helps us shift between them depending on which is the most relevant and important input at any given moment.

Select: This helps us remain on-task and not be diverted by any of the other stimuli that are bombarding us so that we don’t abandon the relevant task at hand just because we become aware of something else. 

Update: When a new piece of information arrives that is important to consider with our current task, this allows us to integrate it into our procedure and let it contribute to the work at hand.

Although this is ideal, the truth is: not all brains work in the same way. 

For some people, this executive function does not go smoothly. They can have trouble paying attention to what they’re doing, staying on track with the plan they have formulated, managing their time effectively and following through to complete the task.

How we do what we do.

To accomplish even a simple task, our executive function will need to carry out these steps:

  • Assess the task and what needs to happen.
  • Plan how this is to be accomplished.
  • Organize this plan into a series of individual steps.
  • Determine when this task needs to be completed, how much time it will take to do so and whether we have that time available.
  • Hold our attention on track throughout the process to avoid being diverted.
  • Acknowledge when the task is completed and transfer our focus to something else.

Here are some cues that a person may be struggling with executive functioning issues:

  • Difficulty starting or completing tasks.
  • Inability to appropriately prioritize tasks or their components.
  • Short-term memory problems; forgetting what they just heard or read.
  • Difficulty in following directions or the steps of a task.
  • Inability to cope with change, especially affecting a current task. 
  • Inability to switch seamlessly between tasks. 
  • Difficulty managing emotional issues or fixations.
  • Having trouble organizing their thoughts.
  • Difficulty keeping track of objects and belongings.
  • Issues with time management.
  • Difficulty focusing their attention.
  • Difficulty controlling their inhibitions.
  • Problems remembering words and generating ideas.
  • Issues with dealing with interpersonal relationships.

People who experience problems with executive function are often seen as lazy or unintelligent, but this could not be further from the truth. It does mean that these people must work much harder than others may in their efforts to keep on track. They often develop coping strategies or other means of compensating for the errors they find themselves making, not being entirely sure why that is the case.

We use executive functions when our actions are more thoughtful and less automated. As a coping strategy, those with difficulties might reduce a large, repetitive task to a series of steps so that they can whiz through it without having to consult the executive functions center at each step.

How do executive functioning issues affect children?

These executive functioning issues can lead to mounting frustration, create ongoing anxiety, or lock the brain in a feedback loop that can paralyze the individual. It’s easy to see how these difficulties can interfere with the learning process, especially in a child who has not developed any coping strategies.

From birth, a child’s first, all-encompassing task is to learn. Where am I? Who am I? What’s it all about? So for a creature who is basically a learning machine, it is a major impediment to its development if the learning process is slowed significantly or derailed.

When children start their learning journey, that is usually when we begin to notice that some of them are lagging behind their peers in their progress. Labels start to emerge, potentially suggesting ADHD, among other things. These conditions are currently deemed to result from issues with the executive functioning of their brains.

Testing for executive function issues is done by a professional, usually a psychologist. It can be done in the school, but typically not until a teacher identifies a problem with a student and initiates the process of getting that student some help.  

Both students and educators need to be aware of the different executive functions and how they interact with recognized learning differences. This way, neither one will assume that a difficulty in one area means that a student is hopeless and will never be able to learn. Instead, targeted support can be applied to the area that is lacking. This can equip them with specific strategies that can serve them far beyond the classroom.

We’re here to help.

At The Learning Lab, we know how to holistically assist a student who is having difficulties with Executive Function. We can support you and your child who is struggling to overcome the challenges brought on by learning differences due to conditions such as dyslexia and ADHD. And we can do this in small groups or on a one-on-one basis. Talk to us today and find out how we can help you and your children achieve success in collaboration with, not in spite of, their unique learning style.