Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Command Central: Understanding Executive Functions and the Role They Play in Learning


Imagine never really knowing what is going to happen next.

Imagine not knowing how to start a task.

Imagine struggling to organize your school bag.

Imagine what it feels like to consistently misplace your lunch.

These scenarios are a daily reality if you struggle with a set of skills referred to as executive functions. The best way to describe executive functions is that they are the like air traffic control for the brain and when a student has an attention or learning disability, they often also struggle with at least some of the skills controlled by executive functions.

Executive functions is also a set of skills that until I began to work exclusively with students with learning disabilities and ADHD, I was largely unaware of because when you don't struggle with executive functions, you take what these skills enable you to do for granted.

Executive skills are responsible for impulse control, emotional control, flexible thinking, working memory, self-monitoring, planning/prioritizing, task initiation and organization. Pretty important skills that time and time again, teachers and parents don't realize are often the "symptoms" of attention and leaning disabilities. Weaknesses in these skills are enormous stressors and sources of frustration for not only parents and teachers, but also for students who struggle with executive functions. And, the problem is, we often don't address these skills at all in school.

With a number of relatively simple tweaks, changes, and mindful practises and strategies, we can really help students take control of their own executive skills thereby enabling them learn and feel much better abour their ability to independently manage their lives.

Before we launch into a lesson on executive functions, it would help us to understand how the brain is "built". The following video by Albera Family Wellness is a great place to start:


If you want to learn more about executive functions, what it's like to struggle with this set of vital skills, and strategies that help, please access the following lesson and resource bank: Executive Function: The Air Traffic Control Centre of the Brain


Finally, the proliferation of digital oranizational tools that are free or relatively inexpensive and simple to use is astonishing. Here is a list of tools that can really help students who struggle with executive functions, take control of their lives. The two following lists come from Understood.org; in itself an amazing resource site on all things having to do with learning and attention difficulties.

8 Apps to Help Younger Kids With Self-Control

10 Apps to Help Kids With Note-Taking

Google Keep

And a number of really exhaustive lists with many other entry point are AppCrawlr's "Best iOS apps for Organizing Thoughts" list and "Best iOS apps for Task Management".  They are quite amazing and there is literally an app for any need. All lists are also available for Android as well.

So, the long and short of it is, executive functions might actually be the starting point for many students who struggle with attention and learning disabilities. Once everyone involved has a better understanding of these skills and strategies and tools that enable students to succeed, we can get down to celebrating their LearnAbilities instead of their disabilities.