Executive Function

Businesses executives have authority and responsibilities for the efficient running of the organisation.  Executives’ main functions are to overview and manage people and activities; delegate tasks; establish internal processes and ensure these are conducted smoothly; anticipate difficulties; focus attention upon the relevant issues to solve problems; change direction when necessary; maintain appropriate timelines and create structure within the organization.   The brain’s executive function has many similarities with the function of an organisational executive.  When functioning well, they each manage people, processes and activities to achieve successful outcomes.

The executive function of the brain is responsible for exercising self-control, managing impulses and focusing attention.  These important functions have prompted neurologists to regard the executive function (located in the prefrontal cortex) as the most important part of the brain and primarily responsible for academic achievement.  By establishing, remembering and internalizing processes for thinking and rules for behaviour, the brain’s executive function is responsible for cognitive focus, impulse control, working memory, sequence, planning, organizing, managing time and linking ideas – all critical in controlling attention, behaviour, and the completion of academic tasks.

Students, who have assignments to complete, need to create a plan, organize time, prioritise tasks, remember and utilise specific skills, maintain focus, exercise impulse-control to stay on track, juggle details, and think flexibly and strategically.  The executive function is responsible for all these neurological functions.  It is important that the relevant neural pathways are established and used frequently so that executive functions are embedded in the brain and able to be readily accessed in future. Students who have attention and learning difficulties are likely to experience problems with executive function. They need assessment to indicate if there is a need for additional specific support strategies.

To improve executive function, neurologist Judy Willis stresses the importance of creating and strengthening neural circuits by encouraging students to link related information into categories and networks.  Students may need to be explicitly taught specific study skills as well as learning how to analyse, summarise and symbolise information. Making predictions, investigating, problem-solving and engaging in meaningful learning that uses higher order thinking skills will help. Parents, who talk with students about how to establish goals, prioritise, make judgements, monitor progress and consciously think about their own thinking and learning, will establish and strengthen executive function.  Don’t assume that these cognitive skills will come naturally; teach and model the skills regularly so students learn to develop and use these strategies confidently.

© Michele Juratowitch