How school psychologists can support executive functioning in students

Executive functioning has been the subject of extensive research over the years. We now know more than we ever have about the ways our brains regulate, manage, and organize both complex and simple tasks and functions. 

Still, even for school psychs, the term executive functioning may not be intimately familiar – and many will wonder how best they can support the development of these skills in a student.

Robust executive functioning skills, which are complex cognitive skills that engage the prefrontal cortex of the brain, are essential for both academic and life success. In layman’s terms, EF allows us to make plans, focus our attention, juggle multiple tasks and remember and follow instructions. Our brains need these skills to filter distractions, prioritize, control our impulses, and set goals. Conversely, an individual with poor or underdeveloped executive functioning may appear disorganized, have difficulty following directions or seem not to understand them, and exhibit behavior problems.

The prefrontal cortex is still being researched, and there’s plenty about both this part of the brain and its precise role in executive functioning that experts don’t know. The more we learn, however, the more targeted and effective interventions and support will become. 

Which students might be affected by executive functioning deficits?

In theory, just about anyone can have underdeveloped executive functioning skills, including adults who have never been diagnosed with a learning difference or other condition. But several disabilities are known to contribute to executive functioning deficits, including, though not limited to:

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Mood disorders
  • Traumatic brain injuries
  • Tourette syndrome
  • Autism or autism-spectrum disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or disturbances caused by life trauma
  • Other cognitive impairments

Whatever the initial diagnosis, executive functioning deficits could show up in a few ways:

  • A student’s writing is disorganized or muddled
  • The student isn’t clear or understandable when they’re discussing personal experiences
  • They have trouble taking setbacks in stride, or without overreacting
  • They show very negative emotional responses, particularly reactions that seem disproportionate to a given situation
  • They misplace their assignments, forget to turn them in, or even forget to complete them

It’s not always easy to tell when the evidence warrants a formal assessment. But school psychologists and/or parents may consider it when they know or suspect that a child has a neurological disorder, the child has suffered a recent head injury and is having academic or behavioral difficulties in the aftermath, they have been diagnosed with a central nervous system infection, or are suspected of having a learning disability, ADHD, or an otherwise unexplainable cognitive profile. 

Executive functioning, 504s and IEPs

A student with executive functioning deficits may require extra support in the classroom, and sometimes, this will mean developing a 504 plan or an individualized education plan (IEP), tailored to the student’s needs. This blog can help you decide which path is best. A number of accommodations may support a student with executive functioning deficits, and help them thrive in the classroom environment. 

What executive functioning interventions exist?

The most beneficial resources will often vary from case to case, but we’ve compiled a few articles, backgrounders and potential interventions that are worth a look.

And for even more, schedule a call to learn more about strategies and accommodations for students with underdeveloped executive functioning skills.

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