Executive function is a popular term these days and is often heard in IEPs. When the psychologist expresses concern about the child’s executive function, you can almost see the parents’ anxiety rise.

It sounds so serious – as if something is majorly wrong with the child.

The truth about executive function is actually quite simple and much less frightening. Executive function is the brain’s ability to resist temptations, stay focused, think before acting, and meet new and unexpected challenges, just to name a few. We often think of executive function as your child’s (lack of) ability to stay focused and turn in their assignments.

Executive function is just a fancy term for the brain’s ability to make decisions. The assumption is that it is the ability to make good decisions, but it is really the ability to make any decision – good or bad. “Good” executive function is used to describe good decision making and “poor” executive function describes bad or poor decision making.

Sensory Processing Plays an Important Role

Executive function is, in many ways, the last step in sensory processing. Information comes into your brain through the sensory system. The brain then sorts through the information, determines what is important and then decides how to respond.

To have “good” executive function, you must have good sensory-motor processing. When a person is unable to process the data coming into the brain well, or even quickly, the ability to make good decisions will suffer.

Whether the final decision is determined to be “good” or “bad”, it is important to understand that executive function is working in the brain. While there may be cases of severely disabled children who lack this ability, most unique learner’s executive function is busy processing the information that comes into their brain. The trouble often lies with the sheer volume of information that comes in. The portion of the brain where executive function takes place must work very hard to process so much data.

Much of the information that our senses gather has already been evaluated and deemed unimportant by a different area of our brains. In fact, much of the time our sensory systems “ignore” or tune out information that bombards us constantly. Unique learners often have difficulty in this area.

Instead of either not being absorbed by the senses in the first place or discarding information as unimportant, a majority of this data hits the executive function region of the brain. This means that what may appear to be slow processing may actually be tremendously fast processing – there is just much more data to sort through and evaluate.

How can you help your unique learner improve their ability to make decisions – i.e. executive function?

First, it is critical that you grasp the point in the last paragraph. Your unique learner is very likely dealing with a much higher volume of information than you are. You must allow them time to process it all. If their processing of the information is interrupted or rushed, their ability to make quality decisions will be diminished. What may be labeled as “poor” executive function might be caused by a lack of time to evaluate the information.

What is needed is what I call The Pause.

The Pause is an intentional strategy that recognizes that the brain needs a moment to process all the information. You will need to help your child practice this skill – which is useful for both your typical and unique learner.

Along with “The Pause”, recognize that expectations and impatience make it even harder for your unique learner to think. This may be their own expectations as they compare themselves to those around them or it may be your expectation that they should just try harder.

Address these expectations head-on by acknowledging that accomplishments and achievements do not determine a person’s worth. There is no way to fairly compare two brains and their output because the input through two different sensory systems can be very different.

Because executive function is technically the last step in the sensory-motor processing loop, anything that impacts the sensory-motor system will also impact thinking.

Have you ever been so tired you feel clumsy? How about so stressed that you are jumpy and easily startled? Just as stress, loneliness, inactivity or lack of exercise and lack of sleep can disrupt the function of the sensory system, they can also impair executive function. The good news is that the brain can be trained how to apply executive function tasks and improved with practice.

Begin practicing “The Pause” and adjust your expectations of how quickly your child “should” think. Remind them, and yourself, that their value has nothing to do with accomplishments or achievements.

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Suzanne Cresswell Administrator
Suzanne Cresswell is an occupational and physical therapist who has worked with unique learners for over three decades. Suzanne works to educate and provide proven solutions and strategies to those that parent, instruct and work with unique learners. By creating an understanding of unique learners and their learning behavior, she helps parents, teachers and the students themselves find the ability in learning disability.
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