Executive Functions & Education

February 07th, 2012

What are Executive Functions?

The Executive Functions (EF) are a set of cognitive functions that provide the infrastructure for acquiring skills and knowledge and that coordinate the production and organisation of that knowledge. They include the ability to inhibit motor responses and other actions, to initiate effort, to sustain attention and effort, to shift attention or strategy, the controls of memory, and the ability to plan and organise for task performance.

Teachers may be more familiar with the term metacognition. This term may be misleading because it creates a false impression of a little meta-person running all cognition or thinking. In fact, the EF are no more or no less important than other cognitive operations and academic skills. The latter can be thought of as the ingredients for a task while the EF provide the recipe. One cannot prepare a meal without the ingredients and the recipe.

Dysfunction in the core EF of behavioural inhibition (the ability to inhibit or stop behavioural responses to stimuli) is now considered to be the a major deficit in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Executive dysfunction in various forms is also present in a number of other disorders including learning disabilities, Autistic Spectrum Disorders, anxiety disorders and depression.

The adverse effects of executive dysfunction

The EF exist within the brain at a cognitive level and therefore cannot be directly observed. The behaviours that EF dysfunction creates can, however, be observed and include:

  • Having difficulty inhibiting behaviour (i.e., stopping and thinking).
  • Being impulsive, rushing work, and blurting out answers.
  • Failing to pay close attention to details.
  • Having difficulty sustaining mental effort and avoiding tasks that require sustained effort.
  • Being easily distracted and switching from one task to something less important.
  • Difficulty with organisation and planning.
  • Appearing to make the same mistakes repeatedly despite seeming to understand rules and the use of appropriate discipline.
  • Parents and teachers having to continually repeat rules.
  • Some students may manifest hyperactivity verbally (i.e., talk excessively).
  • Becoming fixated on particular things (e.g., television or computer).
  • Failing to learn from previous behaviour and consequences.
  • Only being motivated to perform when there is something in it for them (i.e., they need external motivation).
  • Having poor perception of time and poor ability to use time to plan behaviour.
  • Appearing sluggish and taking a long time to process information.
  • Needing constant assistance in solving problems.
  • Poor short-term memory and general forgetfulness; including forgetting things they need for school or forgetting to hand things in at school.
  • General difficulties with regulating emotion. Emotional responses to situations may appear extreme. It can be difficult for them to remain calm and think things through. They can become overexcited and ‘throw tantrums’ more regularly than their peers.
  • Becoming overwhelmed by tasks that should be manageable.
  • Talking a lot, but not really saying anything.
  • Disorganised speech/language and poor grammar (i.e., their sentences are poorly constructed).
  • These kids have been described as carrying around an excitement meter that they use to evaluate every stimulus in their immediate environment. Essentially, the thing with the highest reading wins (i.e., gets their attention).

Consider the child in a classroom who is faced with both a page of maths problems and his peers talking about BMX bikes. Which stimulus is he to choose? For most kids with EF dysfunction there is no option – they go for the more exciting discussion about BMX. And what happens? They are seen as ‘inattentive’ and in some cases ‘disruptive’. In actual fact, they are being quite attentive to the BMX conversation; it’s just that it may be inappropriate to do so in the classroom.

Once attention has been allocated to an exciting and rewarding stimulus, it can also be hard to get the child to inhibit that response and return to the original task. 


An individual with EF dysfunction is likely to be inconsistent in academic performance and behaviour; some days they will and some days they won’t, rather than simply not being able to do something at all. They will often have the skills necessary for a task (i.e., the ingredients), but fail to produce adequate performance or output because the EF controls (the  recipe) do not provide the necessary regulation on performance.

Managing Executive Dysfunction

If a child displays some of the symptoms described above and those symptoms are causing them a problem it is appropriate to have them assessed. The psychologist will need to determine what is causing the problems, make the appropriate diagnosis(es) and design a specific treatment plan.

Some individuals, particularly those with a diagnosis of ADHD, may benefit from a stimulant medication or non-stimulant such as atomoxetine. It is important to recognise that medications do not teach skills. They can, however, give the child a greater ability to stop, think, and to perform what they know. Medication does not work for every child but if you consider it worth a trial you should discuss the matter with a medical specialist.

Management of EF should always include a behavioural component and requires a team-based approach. Ideally, the school counsellor and learning support team can assist with management. However, it may be wise to arrange a meeting of all stakeholders at the school to discuss the case. These meetings should be used to further define the problem behaviours within the classroom and to develop methods for improving attention to detail and task and for increasing consistency and output.

More information on EF


Lynn Meltzer

National Resource Center on ADHD

Russ Barkley

Russ Barkley 2


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