"Executive Function" is a term used to describe a set of mental processes that helps us connect past experience with present action. We use executive function when we perform such activities as planning, organizing, strategizing and paying attention to and remembering details.
People with executive function problems have difficulty with planning, organizing and managing time and space. They also show weakness with "working memory" (or "seeing in your mind's eye"), which is an important tool in guiding one's actions.
As with other manifestations of LD, disorders in executive function can run in families. Problems can be seen at any age but tend to be increasingly apparent as children move through the early elementary grades; the demands of completing schoolwork independently can often trigger signs that there are difficulties in this area.
In school, at home or in the workplace, we're called on all day, every day, to self-regulate behavior. Normally, features of executive function are seen in our ability to:
These skills allow us to finish our work on time, ask for help when needed, wait to speak until we're called on and seek more information.
Problems with executive function may be manifested when a person:
There is no single test or even battery of tests that identifies all of the different features of executive function. Educators, psychologists, speech-language pathologists and others have used measures including the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test (Berg, 1948), the Category Test (Reitan, 1979), the Trail Making Test (Reitan, 1979), and the Progressive Figures and Color Form Tests (Reitan & Wolfson, 1985) to name a few.
Careful observation and trial-teaching are invaluable in identifying, and better understanding, weaknesses in this area.
There are many effective strategies one can use in when faced with the challenge of problems with executive function. Here are some methods to try:
The brain continues to mature and develop connections well into adulthood, and a person's executive function abilities are shaped by both physical changes in the brain and by life experiences, in the classroom and in the world at large. Early attention to developing efficient skills in this area can be very helpful, and as a rule, direct instruction, frequent reassurance and explicit feedback are strongly recommended.
What Are Executive Functions and Self-Regulation and What Do They Have to Do With Language-Learning Disorders
by Bonnie Singer & Anthony Bashir
The Realization and Utilization of Organization
by Dr. Mel Levine
Overview of Executive Dysfunction
Leslie E. Packer, PhD, 1998 (last updated January 2009)
Executive Dysfunction in Autism
E. L. Hill, 2004, Technical Research Review
Learning Disabilities and
Executive Dysfunction in Boys with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity
Executive Dysfunction and Its
to Language Ability in Verbal
School-Age Children With Autism
A series by Philip David Zelazo, Ph.D.
In this series, Dr. Philip Zelazo takes an in-depth look at how
executive function develops in infancy, childhood, and adolescence;
disorders of executive function; and how to foster its development:
(2) Executive Function Part 2: The Development of Executive Function in Infancy and Early Childhood
(3) Executive Function Part 3: The Development of Executive Function Across the Lifespan
(4) Executive Function Part 4: Brain Growth and the Development of Executive Function
(5) Executive Function Part 5: What Happens When the Development of Executive Function Goes Awry?
(6) Executive Function Part 6: Training Executive Function
(Dr. Zelazo is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, where he holds the Canada Research Chair in Developmental Neuroscience.)