from CEC Today,
Janie did well in school until she got to
fourth grade. Then her grades dropped, she couldn’t keep up with
her work load, she got frustrated, and her self-esteem was
sinking. Janie was referred for testing for special education,
but she scored well on the assessments. What was wrong? Janie’s
difficulties in school stemmed from executive function (EF)
weaknesses. Janie is not alone. While children who have learning
disabilities, autism, ADHD, traumatic brain injury, and conduct
disorder often have difficulties with EF, more children without
disabilities are exhibiting EF problems as well.
While definitions vary, EF generally refers to the cognitive
processes that enable individuals to engage in goal-directed or
problem-solving behaviors. Thus, EF may include goal setting or
identifying a problem, developing a plan, the ability to execute
the plan, flexibility, attention and memory systems to guide the
individual (e.g., working memory), and evaluation or
Some are now recommending that all children be taught EF
processes systematically starting in the elementary grades. One
reason is that even in early elementary grades teachers are
requiring students to complete long-term projects, as well as
lengthy reading and writing assignments—all of which require EF,
says Lynn Meltzer, co-founder and co-director of the Institute
for Learning and Development and professor at Tufts University.
A second reason is that in today’s technologically reliant
society, students often turn to the Internet or other technology
“We live in an Internet-driven society,” says Meltzer. “Students
are not taught from information that is pre-organized by
experts…it is critical that every child is taught these kinds of
strategies. They impact all aspects of student work as they move
up in grade levels. Students must coordinate multiple subskills
in second grade.”
While all students benefit from instruction in EF strategies,
such instruction is even more critical for students with
disabilities. Research has shown that students with cognitive
disabilities and behavior disorders often have weaknesses in EF.
With explicit instruction, these students may develop the EF
skills, which can help them progress academically and socially.
How Effective Is EF Training?
At this point, research on EF training is still limited. Torkel
Klingberg, a neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institute in
Sweden, and his colleagues conducted a study of children with
ADHD. They found that better working memory skills may reduce
ADHD symptoms. In another study, children trained in the EF
skill of selective attention were quicker to respond than the
control group. These results suggest that EF training may affect
the way children’s brains develop. However, there is much to
learn in this area. For example, the brain’s adaptations in
response to EF training may be gradual and accumulative, and
training may be needed for an extended period of time. Also, EF
training would need to continue to challenge children’s skills.
What Happens When EF Is Weak?
Difficulties in EF have long-ranging consequences. Some obvious
effects of EF impairment includes children’s ability to organize
materials, plan long-term projects, manage time, and persist in
accomplishing an academic goal such as a term paper or reading a
long book. EF weakness also makes it difficult for students to
start and complete tasks, and their ability to handle
frustration is compromised.
EF problems also manifest themselves in academic tasks such as
reading or writing an essay, state Meltzer and Kalyani Krishnan
in Executive Function in Education: From Theory to Practice.
Some of the EF processes involved in reading include 1) drawing
on prior knowledge as students shift from “retrieving and
interpreting background knowledge to attending to and
interpreting print and new content,” 2) flexibility as students
interpret words, draw inferences, and process redundant
information, and 3) prioritizing as students decide which parts
of the text is useful for their purpose. Writing requires
students to plan, engage in flexible thinking (paraphrasing the
topic), organize, and prioritize.
Students with EF problems may also be poor test-takers. First,
they are unable to prioritize which information to study when
preparing for the test. As they take the test, they are unable
to prioritize tasks, plan responses, or monitor their time.
EF problems can also manifest themselves through behavior
problems. Failure to plan, to inhibit behavior despite
intentions, and to evaluate can all lead students to act
inappropriately, according to Philip David Zelazo, professor at
the University of Toronto, in his AboutKidsHealth series on EF.
For example, some children may act inappropriately, because they
do not plan or anticipate the consequences of their behavior. In
other instances, children who cannot inhibit their actions may
continue to behave inappropriately even when they understand the
consequences of those actions; children who have difficulty
evaluating may not be able learn from punishment and will
therefore repeat inappropriate behavior.
EF and Disabilities
Specific EF impairments appear to affect particular
disabilities. Children with learning disabilities have
difficulty with numerous facets of EF, according to Meltzer and
Krishnan. These include self-regulatory activities such as
checking, monitoring, and revising when learning as well as
weaknesses in cognitive flexibility, sorting, organizing, and
“Their (students with learning disabilities) strong conceptual
reasoning abilities may not match their output and productivity
because of their difficulties organizing and prioritizing
numerous details, juggling these details in working memory, and
shifting flexibly between abstract concepts and literal details
as well as from major themes to the details,” state Meltzer and
Krishnan in Executive Function in Education.
Some researchers see ADHD not just as a problem of paying
attention but as a weakness of EF, says Thomas E. Brown,
professor at Yale University, in “ADHD as Executive Function
Impairments” in the Help Group Newsletter. Hyperactivity or
impulsivity could stem from a student’s inability to control his
or her actions or verbalization, both of which can be
manifestations of EF problems, he says. Children with ADHD may
also manifest EF impairments that impact organizing, planning,
“The core of their problem (individuals with ADHD) is a
developmental impairment in being able to manage their mind to
focus on tasks they need to do, even when those tasks are not
immediately interesting,” Brown says in the article.
Meltzer says students with learning disabilities and ADHD share
a similar EF problem—information overload.
“These students have information coming into a funnel that needs
to be processed and prioritized,” she says. “They also have to
figure out what is most important, ignore the irrelevant
information, and shift from the main idea to details. They
can’t. The funnel is clogged, and as a result these students
can’t produce the kind of projects and essays required.”
Children with autism, too, show deficits in EF. Specifically,
these individuals have difficulty in planning future actions and
Assessing EF, especially in children, is a complex task. Just of
couple of factors that can skew results are that individuals’
results on EF assessments may vary due to their anxiety level or
they may perform well on tasks in an assessment setting but not
when faced with similar tasks in the real world, especially when
novelty is a feature of the situation. Also, it is difficult to
parse out one area that is the source of EF difficulty.
That said, some of the assessments used to determine EF ability
• Stroop Color Word Task—Measures an individual’s ability to
inhibit responses, resolve interference, and resolve behavioral
• Go–No Go Task—Measures an individual’s attention, flexibility
of responding, and ability to withhold a response.
• Stop-Signal Task—Measures an individual’s ability to stop a
response that is already underway.
• Tower of Hanoi—Measures an individual’s ability to plan ahead.
• Wisconsin Card Sorting Test—Measures an individual’s ability
to test hypothesis and flexibility.
Strategies to Strengthen EF
Though EF strategies can—and often are—taught in one-on-one
settings or in small groups, some recommend that all students be
taught EF strategies in general education classes.
“We need to teach executive function strategies so students can
plan, organize, prioritize and use their working memory
effectively,” says Meltzer. “Then students become efficient and
successful; their self-esteem improves and their effort becomes
more goal-oriented. All students benefit from the strategies,
and some students must have them. If we embed the strategies in
the curriculum, all students benefit.”
A few models of classroom-based EF strategy instruction are
available, including the Kansas intervention model, Benchmark
model, and Drive to Thrive, according to Meltzer in her book,
Executive Function in Education. All of these models share
• Strategy instruction should be directly linked to the
• The strategies should be taught explicitly, including teacher
modeling and extensive practice.
• Strategies should be taught in a structured, systematic way.
• Strategy instruction should address students’ motivation and
One way to implement the above is for educators to teach a
strategy a week, says Meltzer.
As a follow up, create a “Strategy of the Week Board,” on which
students post their favorite strategy. This also creates a
springboard for a discussion of the strategies.
However, EF strategies are not a “one size fits all.” For
students to use EF strategies effectively, as a first step they
must understand their own learning profile and their strengths
and weaknesses as well as which strategies work for them,
according to Meltzer.
“You need to teach the strategies for the school and classroom,
as well as for the individual child,” she says. “Then you help
students become metacognitive learners who can understand how
Examples of EF Strategies
Special educators already use many of the strategies that help
students improve EF, such as checklists and “how to” lists,
breaking long assignments into chunks, and using visual
calendars, time organizers, and mnemonics.
Meltzer takes these strategies a step further. Some examples
from Executive Function in Education are:
• Memorization—When using acronyms to help students memorize
information, the “crazier the phrase,” the better. If a student
is non-verbal, then make a cartoon.
• Cognitive Flexibility—To help students improve cognitive
flexibility, work with riddles and jokes to help students shift
between word meanings. In math, students can ask themselves: do
I know another way to solve this problem, does this look similar
to other problems I have seen, is this problem the same or
different from the one before it?
• Prioritizing—To help students prioritize information, teach
students to listen to the teacher’s intonation during lectures.
Also, students can highlight the most important ideas in a text
in one color and details in another color.
• Notetaking—To help students prioritize and remember
information students can take 3-column notes: the first column
contains one word that is the core concept, the second column
contains the details supporting the concept, the third column
contains the strategy the student will use to remember the
information. When taking notes from text, students can use a
2-column approach. In the first column, students ask themselves
questions about the text, and they put the answers in the second
• Self-Monitoring and Self-Checking—Helping students check their
work requires two processes: 1) Provide explicit checklists for
assignments, so students know what to check for, and 2) Help
students develop personalized checklists, so they become aware
of and check for their most common errors. As a final step,
students can make their own acronyms to remind themselves of
their personal error traps.
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