The importance of executive function and school performance


Executive function is the process in the brain which helps your child complete their school tasks which is different from the part of the brain that is related to their actual intelligence. One of our experts explains the different types of executive functions and how you can help your “distracted” child at home to learn how to concentrate on the task at hand. 


By Karen Beardsley, OTR: Certified Occupational Therapist


How well does your child do in school? Well, if you have kept up with recent research into intelligence, you will know that how your child scores on an IQ test does not have much to do with how he or she performs in school. This is because the processes of the brain that help your child complete school assignments are different than the processes of the brain related to intelligence. These processes are called executive function.

Executive function is the brain’s ability to organize actions based on past experiences. Think of your brain as a busy control center. Information that the brain takes in must be analyzed, organized, acted upon, and stored for retrieval at a later date.

Executive function allows the brain to complete these steps, such as planning an activity, organizing the steps for the activity, and carrying out the activity to completion.

There are three primary components to executive function: working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control or self-regulation.

  1. Working memory: This is the brain’s ability to retain and retrieve pieces of information for short periods of time. Your child uses working memory when reading increasingly difficult books, writing letters and words, or completing math problems. For example, what letters and numbers look like and what they stand for are stored in his or her long term memory and then pulled into working memory while your child is engaged in the task.
  2. Mental flexibility: This function, also called mindfulness, is the brain’s ability to attend to a task or shift attention between tasks, depending on the situation. Your child may need to read a chapter in a book and then write answers about the chapter on a worksheet. He or she needs to shift his or her attention between the book and the worksheet to successfully complete the task.
  3. Self-control or self-regulation: Self-control helps us to set priorities when completing a task and to resist impulsive actions. Your child uses this skill when organizing homework assignments and focusing on homework instead of playing, watching TV, or engaging in other tasks that might pull him or her away from homework.

All three are crucial to successfully complete the tasks most children are required to do in school. For each assignment, a child must retrieve and use pic 1information he or she has previously learned, shift attention between the components of the assignment, and prioritize which parts of the assignment must be completed first, second, and so forth, all while resisting other things that may draw attention away from the assignment. Executive function is what allows your children to complete their school assignments in a sequential and organized manner.

Children are not born with executive function abilities. Instead, they are born with the potential to develop these skills. If provided with many opportunities that help develop executive function, they will develop and use these skills as they grow and experience more complex demands.

Children, who are not given these opportunities, often due to home environment or certain situations, may experience difficulty using these skills once they are in school. It’s very important to provide your children with opportunities to develop these skills throughout their lives.

A free guide full of activities to help your child develop executive function is available through Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child. You may download the guide through this link:

Even when children are provided with plenty of opportunities, these skills may be impaired due to cognitive conditions such as autism, ADHD, or learning disabilities. Researchers are now identifying problems with executive function as Executive Function Disorder, or EFD, and finding that this disorder can play a major role in the existence of learning disabilities.

The symptoms of EFD often appear similar to those of ADHD, including difficulty organizing and retaining information, difficulty sustaining or shifting attention to complete the steps of a task, and difficult controlling impulsive actions. Children who have EFD are often misdiagnosed with ADHD because the symptoms are similar. One primary difference is that these skills tend to improve when a child with ADHD may receive medication for the condition, while the skills do not improve when the child actually has EFD.

If your child has problems with executive function, you may need to make sure that he or she uses external adaptations to help compensate for these skills.

Here are a few ideas to help your child compensate at home:

  • Use written or visual schedules to help your child remember and sequence the steps of a task.pic 3
  • Use a calendar or planner to help your child remember when assignments are due. Assist your child in prioritizing what assignments to work on first.
  • Break down larger assignments into smaller steps to assist your child in sequencing those steps.
  • If your child is experiencing difficulty shifting attention or sustaining attention, make sure his or her work area is clear of other distractions while he or she is working. Remove distractions such as toys, cell phones, televisions, or other people. You may even want to provide your child with a study carrel or a separate, quiet “homework” room to assist in minimizing distractions.
  • Give your child “work breaks” in- between tasks or the steps of a long task, so that your child may indulge in an activity that typically pulls his or her attention away from work for a short time. Set a timer so that your child knows when the break is over and he or she is required to shift his or her attention back to the work task.

The professionals who work with your child at school may have additional ideas to help, so make sure you discuss executive function with your child’s teachers. If your child is not identified with a learning disability but you suspect he or she may be having problems with executive function, talk to the professionals at your child’s school.



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