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Executive Functioning: What is it & What Can I do to Help?

Ask the Experts by Dona Johnson-Beach


Q: My teen is bright but lives in the moment, completing homework and then forgetting to turn it in and gets frustrated. I don’t understand what the problem might be. Can anything be done to address these issues?


A: Your child’s difficulties could involve executive skills deficits. Executive functioning allows people to problem solve and engage in goal-directed activities. In other words – the control processes of the brain.

The frontal lobe is considered to be the center of executive functioning. Often students with ADHD have difficulties with executive functioning skills and can have a delay of 30% – affecting behavior and self-management skills. If your child sounds like the student above, executive functioning skills difficulties could be the problem.

There are ways to intervene to help students improve executive functioning. One way is by intervening at the level of the environment-changing conditions or situations outside of the child. The other is by intervening at the level of the child – or the capacity to use his/her executive skills. Students can be taught ways to develop or refine skills or by motivating him/her to use these skills.

One executive functioning skill is working memory – the ability to hold information in one’s mind long enough to then act on it. Weaknesses in this area can impact functioning in the classroom and at home. Strategies can be implemented to strengthen and accommodate difficulties in this area including:

  • Using resources to remember important information: written reminders (planners, technological devices, post it notes, calendar notes)
  • Use of acronyms, keywords or other mnemonics to remember routines or steps in a process
  • Have the student be an active participant in note taking but consider scaffolding to assist in this process- provide a copy of teacher notes and have the student highlight pertinent information or use a partially filled in outline for the student to add to while listening. Providing a copy of complete class notes from a peer or teacher can also be helpful.
  • Engage in eye contact with the student when giving instructions and have the students repeat instructions to ensure understanding.

Resources: Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare
Executive Functions: Practical Applications in the Classroom by Sandra Rief

Dona Johnson-Beach was a school psychologist in the Grosse Pointe Public School System.

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