Imagine that you are stuck on an escalator.  You don’t know what to do.  You have no Plan B. You can’t be flexible and think of how to overcome this problem.  Now imagine that you are in a classroom.  The teacher calls for homework to be turned in, however, you can’t find it.  In fact, you are not sure if you even have a pencil.  Your desk and binder are a mess.  You try desperately to think through the steps needed.  The teacher is talking but you can’t process through these multi step directions and instead you become frustrated, blurt out, or completely shut down.  This is what a day looks like for a student with weak executive function skills.  These students often appear to be trouble makers or just lazy, when in reality, they don’t have the necessary skills to plan, prioritize, demonstrate flexible thinking, have weak working memory, demonstrate difficulty with self-monitoring, and struggle with overall organization and task initiation.

The Importance Executive Functioning

Executive function skills are not fully developed until approximately age 25.  These skills are the single greatest predictor of academic success; far more than IQ.  Executive function development happens primarily in the prefrontal cortex and as such is more sensitive to stress than other areas of the brain.  Adolescents, particularly those students with ADHD and are on the spectrum, tend to demonstrate executive function weaknesses the most as it is a direct contrast to their developing freedoms and emotions and they are unable to “put the brakes on.”

Executive function deficits look different in each individual

Often times these are the students who don’t know how to start a paper or project.  They misread how long it will take to complete a multi page research paper and wait until the day before it is due.  They may struggle to communicate information sequentially.  While regular school-home communication is imperative, there are some important steps that can be taken at home and school to help support students.  In the classroom, clear expectations and frequent check ins are of the utmost importance.  Visual supports such as schedules, colored paper/folders and highlighting information are helpful.  Long- term projects should be monitored with planners and checklists.  At home, similar supports can include picture cues, calendars, designated “spots” for specific items, color coding, and frequent backpack and binder checks.  Card and board games can help boost working memory.
Ultimately, executive function and learning specialists can help support students and can work in conjunction with occupational therapists.  The team approach is the best approach. If you’re interested in learning more please contact Ellen Dial at