Executive Functioning and Its
Affect on Student’s Performance
Dr. Caren Baruch-Feldman
Hewlett High School
December 7, 2009
What Is Executive Functions and How Does It
Pertain to Success or Failure in High School?
A student’s ability to manage their time, organize
their paperwork, and numerous other day to day
classroom activities are impacted by their
This presentation will explain the role of executive
functions and offer practical strategies for
school personnel to help students who have
weaknesses in this area.
What Is Executive Functioning?
Executive Functioning refers to our ability to be able
to make and carry out plans, direct our attention,
focus and also control our internal states: our
impulses and emotions and to be able to switch
from one task to another.
It is involved in processes such as planning, cognitive
flexibility, abstract thinking, rule acquisition,
initiating appropriate actions and inhibiting actions,
and selecting relevant information.
What Are Executive Functions?
Directive capacities of the mind.
Multiple in nature, not a single capacity
Part of neural circuits that are routed through the
Cue the use of other mental abilities.
Direct and control perceptions, thoughts, actions,
and to some degree emotions.
A Producing Disability.
Executive Functions Are Not a Unitary Trait
Frequently referred to as “the CEO of the Brain” or the
“Conductor of the Orchestra”
These metaphors hint at the nature of EFs, but are far too
general for effective understanding of the concept.
These metaphors create the impression of a central
control center or a singular control capacity
A more appropriate metaphor for executive functions:
“A Team of Conductors” and “Co-Conductors of a
Mental Ability Orchestra”
What Do Students with Executive
Functioning Weaknesses Look Like?
On Demand/Producing Deficiencies
Because internally driven production is much easier to
accomplish than externally demanded production for
children who have these difficulties their lack of production
on demand often stands in stark contrast to their seemingly
effortless production “when the spirit moves them”.
The on-demand deficiencies observed by others are often
attributed to negative personal characteristics such as being
UNMOTIVATED, WILLFULLY LAZY and
DISORGANIZED, POSSESSING A BAD ATTITUDE,
DOING THIS ON PURPOSE.
More and more however, neuroscientists are saying that these
underachievers may suffer from neurological abnormalities,
particularly in the FRONTAL LOBE.
Executive Functioning and the Brain
Kids Do Well If They Can…*
Behind every challenging behavior is an unsolved problem or
Challenging behavior often occurs when the demands being
placed on a kid exceed his capacity to respond adaptively.
One needs to determine what thinking skill the child is lacking so
that the thinking skill can be taught.
One needs to determine the triggers/antecedents: the what, who,
when, and where.
The goal is to develop a plan with the child that resolves the
problem in a realistic and mutually satisfactory manner.
* Based On Ross Greene’s “Lost At School”
Executive Functions and Clinical Diagnoses
Most of the clinical conditions described in the
DSM-IV reflect some form of Executive
The DSM-IV can be thought of as “A User’s
Guide to All the Things That Can Go Wrong
With the Frontal Lobes”
Children with ADHD Have the Following Executive Functioning
Executive Functions and ADHD
Pharmacological treatment of ADHD usually only
addresses the problems associated with the EFs
specific to ADHD (Inhibit, Modulate,
Most persons with ADHD will require additional
interventions to assist with the additional self-
regulation difficulties that persist even when
medication is being used effectively to treat the
primary ADHD problems.
Not Just Being Lazy
Parents, teachers and others involved with a child
with executive function difficulties must be careful
not to attribute the particular production deficits
they observe to character flaws or consciously
chosen states of mind, such as laziness, lack of
motivation, apathy, irresponsibility, or
Rather, these behaviors are the result of inadequate
activation of executive function capacities that are
necessary for regulating perceptions, feelings,
thoughts and actions.
Can’t Versus Won’t
“We are encouraging people to become involved in their own rescue.”
Remember rewards will not work if the child does not have the skill. Reward programs imply that
a child can do it if he/she wants to or is motivated enough to. This often leads away from
the realization that many children who do want to change their behavior don’t know what to do
to change it.
Executive Function and Development
Because EFs are developmental
in nature, natural maturational
delays and lags are observed.
Inter-individually, there is also
great variation relative to
The developmental progression
is from external to internal.
Executive Function Intervention
During classroom instruction, it is necessary to
find the balance between providing enough EF
SR cueing to help students function, but not too
much to prevent EF skill-development.
It is essential make the child conscious of the EF
skills he/she is lacking and how to engage them.
An Observation Form (McCloskey, Perkin, &
VanDivner) has been developed to identify EF
weaknesses and to structure interventions.
A Developmental Perspective for Interventions for
Children with Executive Skills Deficits
Children with developmental
executive skill deficits also fit
progression from external to
skills can be supported in one
of two ways:
1. By Intervening at the Level
of the Environment.
2. By Intervening at the
Level of the Person.
Intervening at the Level of the Environment
Changing the Physical or
Social Environment to
Changing the Way Cues
are Provided To
Prompt the Child to
Perform Tasks or
Behave in Certain Ways
Changing the Nature of
Intervening at the Level of the Environment: Changing
the Physical or Social Environment to Reduce Problems
Are there impediments to smooth executive functioning
that can be removed or added to the environment?
Front versus back of the class.
Moving them away from a window or near their friends or
Placing a student with weak skills with a very structured
For impulsive children, placing them in smaller settings or
under more adult supervision.
Intervening at the Level of the Environment: Changing the Way
Cues are Provided To Prompt the Child to Perform Tasks or
Behave in Certain Ways
Verbal prompts or reminders,
Schedules, Lists, Pager Systems
Provide time management aids
such as calendars, clocks,
Audio-taped cues that increase
self monitoring. When the
tape sounds the child is
instructed to answer the
question, “Was I paying
Intervening at the Level of the Environment: Changing
the Nature of the Task
Make the task shorter
Make the steps explicit
Make the task close ended instead of open ended (e.g., fill in the blanks, T/F, rather
than essays, providing word banks)
Build in variety or choice with respect to the tasks to be done or the order in which
the tasks are to be done
Offer bonus points for handing in homework and assignments on time instead of
taking points away
Offer feedback and opportunities to revise writing assignments before grading them
Offer students choices for ways to demonstrate content knowledge
Offer credit for all efforts to correct work
Offer opportunities to retake failed tests
Offer multiple ways to participate in classroom activities, not just oral expression
Deduct no more than 5-10% of total points for minor detail errors
Teach note-taking, memory strategies, and study skills when necessary
Changing the Way Teachers Interact with Children
With Executive Skill Deficits
Changing the way adults interact with
them can often ameliorate the
negative impact of weak skills.
Remembering that you are the biggest
vehicle of change and a model of
good executive functioning.
Increasing the level of supervision,
support, and cueing are the easiest
way to impact executive functioning.
Increasing children’s involvement in the
decision making process.
Creating a balance between support and
acting as the child’s frontal lobe with
the ultimate goal of having the child
develop their own executive skills
sufficiently so they can function
Intervening at the Level of the Person
The goal of this strategy is to
change the child’s capacity
for using his/her own
1. Teaching him/her ways to
develop or fine tune
executive skills that he/she
2. Motivating him/her to use
the executive skills that
he/she has but is reluctant to
Teaching Children Executive Skills: Teaching Thinking and
Organizational Skills in Addition to Content Knowledge
Initially teachers become the frontal
lobes for the child.
After having walked the child through
the process many times the teacher
can then begin to reduce the level of
supervision and support.
The next step might be to begin to
transfer the responsibility to the child
by asking a more general question
(e.g. “What do you need to do?”)
The transfer is complete when the child
reaches the point when he/she asks
himself/herself “What do I need to
do”? and either refers to the list
independently without prompting
from the parent or remembers the
steps on the list and can perform the
task without referring to the list
Motivating Children to Use Executive Skills
Aligning External Demands with Internal Commands.
Using natural self-generated sources of motivation
Motivating May Include: Praise and Recognition or
What We Are Doing In Harrison to Address
Students with Executive Functioning Weaknesses
“Find Out What Kind of Student You Are
Survey breaks down executive skill difficulties
into 4 areas: homework, long term projects,
studying for tests, organizing materials and
Each skill is addressed over 3 sessions.
Last Thoughts Your student is not lazy.
You need to teach students the
importance of responsibility, time
Think Win-Win: management, attention to detail and
other important qualities.
State the problem in behavioral terms
that indicate a behavior that can then
Learning is a process.
As much as possible try to align external
demands with internal desires to
maximize motivation. The devil is in
Don’t give up too soon, but revise plan
if needed. It takes 3 weeks for new
habits to form.
Your student didn’t fail, the strategy