What is Executive Function?

Posted on Wednesday, August 9th, 2017


by Occupational Therapists Beth Davidoff, Jennifer Eisenberg, Simona Fertel, Anna Friedman, Rebecca Lipton, Ariela Weisenberg

Tommy, age 6, enters the classroom in the morning and stops in the middle of the room. He looks around at the other students carrying out the steps of the morning routine but doesn’t seem to know what to do first. After several months of the same routine, it is still not automatic for him.

Ms. Dunn, a teacher of 9-year-old students, gives a three-step direction for a homework assignment. “Take out your homework folder, write down the assignment, and put the folder in your cubby.” Todd takes out his homework folder, but cannot execute the other two steps.

Carrie, age 8, enters the cafeteria for lunch. Precariously holding her coat, her favorite Lego model and her lunchbox, she approaches the line at the microwave to heat up her food. While trying to open her lunchbox, everything falls to the floor including her prized Lego model, which breaks apart.

As the class lines up to go to the yard for recess, it starts pouring outside. Although understandably disappointed, most of the students can be redirected to playing indoor games. Joe is not comforted by that option and proceeds to cry. Despite the teacher’s efforts to have him participate with his friends, he refuses to join the play, and chooses to sit by himself for the remainder of recess.

The scenarios mentioned highlight some of the difficulties children face when there is a problem with one or more aspects of executive functioning. Simply put, executive functions help you effectively manage all the life tasks that you need to accomplish and allow you to plan, organize, and execute these tasks. Executive function isn’t just for kids; it is as relevant to a young child as it is to an adult.

Academic literature reflects varying definitions of the skills involved in executive functioning. Amanda Morin, a parent advocate, former teacher, and the author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education, outlines eight key executive functions that can affect a child’s day-to-day life:

  1. Impulse Control – helps your child think before acting.
  2. Emotional Control – helps your child keep his/her feelings in check.
  3. Flexible Thinking – allows your child to adjust to the unexpected.
  4. Working Memory – helps your child keep relevant and key information in mind.
  5.  Self-Monitoring – allows your child to evaluate how he/she is doing.
  6. Planning and Prioritizing – helps your child decide on a goal and formulate a plan to meet it.
  7. Task Initiation – helps your child take action and get started on a task.
  8. Organization – allows your child to keep track of things, both physically and mentally.

As occupational therapists, our primary role with students is to promote function and independence as they engage in activities throughout the school day.

In collaboration with teacher feedback and our own classroom observations, we help teachers incorporate self-regulation strategies, which are essential for effective executive functioning.

To facilitate focusing and staying on task, we often incorporate breathing exercises, movement breaks, and provide physical tools such as seat cushions, fidgets, and weighted animals.

A large focus of our work with students is to help them break down tasks into as many manageable steps as they need. Previews, schedules, checklists and visual charts and timers are often used to help achieve success. For example, during individual sessions, we often set visual timers to help students keep track of the time, as well as to make them aware of what activity choices are possible within a certain time frame.

Structured play, whether on the OT gym equipment or using board games, reinforces rules, turn-taking, and social interaction, while modeling good sportsmanship, both for those who win and for those who do not.

Supporting a student’s organizational skills in the classroom includes maintaining folders/binders, cubbies/lockers, backpacks, and desks, and incorporates several of the executive functions.

Planning obstacle courses, with few or many steps, can either be planned totally by the therapist and executed by the students, planned and executed independently by the student, or a combination of both.

Gaining skill in executive functioning will not only help students have more successful classroom experiences, it will impact life beyond the school’s walls. Parents can take inspiration from the way we work with students in occupational therapy and devise their own strategies to help their students at home.

This article was originally published in the summer 2017 issue of the Gaynor Gazette.