Executive Function Struggles in the Classroom

Proper Executive Function

“Lucy, pick up your pencil.” I address a student who hasn’t begun her assignment with the rest of the class. It’s the third time I’ve said her name, and I’m standing right next to her desk. She finally looks up at me like I’ve just arrived, and she’s not sure why I’m in the classroom, much less why I’m addressing her specifically. Her classmates have been working on their spelling assignment for two whole minutes now, and Lucy has done nothing but stare at her paper.

“I don’t know what to do, Mrs. Fichter,” Lucy turns and stares blankly at the sheet again.

“That’s what I’m trying to help you with, Lucy. We’re going to start this together. Now, first pick up your pencil.” I must repeat the directive at least once more before she reaches into her desk to find her pencil. Once that it in hand, I must tell her to write her name on the top of the page. After she writes her name, she begins to put her pencil down. I hastily tell her to keep it in her hand, for fear that we’ll have to start the process all over again. After that, I read the directions for her that we’ve already read and discussed as a class.

By the time Lucy has actually begun her work, some of her classmates are already finished with the assignment. Although all five problems on the worksheet follow the same number of steps, I must read the steps with Lucy with every single problem before she can even begin to attempt answering any questions. By the time the class is ready to move on to the next subject, Lucy is barely halfway finished with the work.

The problem Lucy struggles with is not an uncommon problem for students. Her executive functioning is not working the way it should, therefore, she’s not able to make the connections she needs to in order to finish her work, remember classroom procedures, and make good choices in her social interactions. Problems with executive functioning are often found in students with ADHD, however, they’re not limited to any one disorder. Before we go delve into the diagnosis, however, first we must know, what is executive function?

Who Has Executive Functioning Problems?

Executive functioning struggles are not symptomatic of just one disorder. WebMD’s article, “What is Executive Function?” says that many with depression, ADHD, learning disabilities, and brain damage show signs of struggles with executive functioning.

It’s important to know that there’s no one test that will prove struggles in this area. Rather, according to the article, “Executive function involves a set of interrelated skills. So there’s no single test to identify trouble. Instead psychologists, teachers, speech-language pathologists, and therapists rely on different tests to measure specific skills.

What is Executive Function?

Put simply, executive function is the ability to mentally connect the dots. It’s the way the brain uses information from different “files” in the brain in tandem in order to carry out life, academic, and work skills.

WebMD’s article, “What is Executive Function?“, defines it this way: “Executive function refers to a set of mental skills that are coordinated in the brain’s frontal lobe. Executive functions work together to help a person achieve goals.”

LDOnline’s article, “What is Executive Functioning?“, says this is the formal definition for the term: “The executive functions are a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation.

Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child article, “Key Concepts: Executive Function,”  compares it to an air traffic control tower safely managing the safe arrivals and departures of multiple flights simultaneously on multiple runways.

The National Center for Learning Disabilities’s article, “The Executive Function and School Performance: A 21st Century Challenge,” breaks executive functioning down into these five responsibilities:

  • Shifting/Thinking Flexibility
  • Organizing
  • Prioritizing
  • Accessing working memory
  • Self-Monitoring/Self-Checking


In the classroom, this transfers to the ability to

  • Remember the steps required to begin an assignment, such as taking out a pencil, writing one’s name at the top of the page, and then following the directions to complete the assignment.
  • Knowing where one’s pencil is, where the assignment is, and making sure there’s enough space on the desk to complete the assignment properly.
  • Remembering that time to complete the assignment is limited, so it’s best to work, rather than socialize with friends during class.
  • Remembering the lesson from last week that contained information pertinent to this present lesson.
  • Recalling the proper procedure for responding when a teacher addresses you, and considering and choosing words when talking with others, words that are courteous and considerate of others.

While children should naturally, with guidance, begin to develop these skills, there are many who struggle with executive functioning that don’t. It might seem silly that I should need to remind Lucy to pick up her pencil three times in order to begin the assignment, but Lucy isn’t trying to be difficult. She’s really just trying to sort the information out in her head, but isn’t able to on her own.

What makes it difficult is that many times, these children have the information stored away in their heads. They know how to take out a pencil. They know how to add or subtract or capitalize or punctuate. They can recite the classroom rules about raising hands to speak. I can’t tell you how many times, however, that I’ve asked for numerous tidbits of information, and they were recited back to me individually, but when asked to make the connection, all I got was a blank stare.


Executive Function - Connecting the Dots

If this is Lucy’s brain, she knows how to:

  • Capitalize the beginning of sentences
  • Check the back of the worksheet to see if there’s more work on the back
  • Raise her hand to speak
  • Put periods at the ends of her sentences
  • Use a pencil, not a pen for classwork
  • Recall last week’s lesson
  • Read the worksheet directions
  • Ask to leave the classroom instead of darting out


It won’t be perfect – because no one is perfect – but her executive functioning should connect for the most part.

Proper Executive FunctionInstead, however, not all of Lucy’s files are “activated,” so to speak, because they’re not activated. Instead, her attempt at beginning her assignment like her classmates looks more like this:

Executive Function StrugglesThe problem isn’t that the knowledge isn’t there. The problem is that Lucy is struggling to retrieve the information when she needs it. She’s failing to make connections that will help her properly complete her assignment. And while it’s frustrating for teachers who are trying to help these students, it’s even more frustrating for the students who know they’re lacking. It’s a difficult thing to realize you’re unable to complete tasks that your classmates can.

How Can We Help Students with Executive Function Struggles?

While a lack of executive function is frustrating, the good news is that the brain is an amazing, stretchy thing. Scientists used to think that we were stuck with what we were born with. More recent studies have shown in great detail that our brains are very capable of change. There’s an incredible God-given elasticity we were built with. Does that mean we’ll all be rocket scientists? No. It does mean, however, that we can help students improve their executive functions.

All sorts of organizations claim to have games and programs that, if done regularly, can improve the brain. According to the PBS Nova article, “The Science of Smart: A Surprising Way To Improve Executive Function,” these programs have shown mixed or few results. For school-aged children, however, one method of improving working memory and self-regulation stands out: regular aerobic exercise. This shouldn’t be too surprising, however, considering all the other benefits we’re finding in regular exercise.

The National Center for Learning Disabilities suggests these tools to aid in executive function:

  • Setting reminder alarms on electronic devices, such as watches and computers. (I think the phone probably is the winner in this category, however.)
  • Writing out a physical schedule, and reviewing it multiple times a day.
  • Minimizing clutter and taking time out of each week to keep work stations organized that way.
  • Utilizing checklists
  • Setting up regular meetings with the teacher to review work and discuss problems early on.

Harvard’s Developing Child suggests helping children begin to develop skills that involve executive functioning before they go to school, rather than assuming that they’ll learn it on their own. Giving children a background of an organized home that follows rules and procedures won’t guarantee a child perfection executive function in school, but it will make their environment conducive to learning at a much younger age, giving them that much more time to develop before it really begins to matter in school.

LDonline’s article, “Helping Children with Executive Functioning Problems Turn In Their Homework,” has a suggestion I personally love: developing templates of repetitive procedures. It’s difficult for children with executive function struggles to come up with their own procedures for problems solving because that takes many, many mental connections. Those connections take up more time than children have in a classroom, and they exhaust the child before the work is even begun. Giving a child a procedure isn’t cheating – it’s providing a tool that allows him to tap the information he already has stored in his brain.

Do you have any tips for helping children with executive functioning problems? I’d love to hear them! Please share your thoughts and questions in the Comment Box below. And don’t forget, you can sign up for my newsletter for extra resources on neurological disorders, education, and spiritual encouragement. As always, thanks for reading!

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*Note: Lucy isn’t a real student. I created her based on situations I’ve dealt with many times in different classrooms.

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  • Angel The Alien on September 28, 2014 at 10:25 pm said:

    It is a hard thing! Even for me, as an adult, executive functioning issues get in my way. I have great ideas, but instead of being in an orderly fashion, they are chaotic and all over the place, so when I try to implement them, things go awry. The trouble with timers and lists and stuff is that you have to remember to make them and use them, which requires executive functioning itself. You almost need to start out doing the organizing and schedules FOR the child and then hopefully phase that out. For instance reminding the child to check his schedule every single day, after every activity… until hopefully the child is going to his schedule before you even have a chance to prompt him. (This is hard for me, when I’m teaching, because of MY brain… I have to try to remember what to remind the children to do!) It would be nice to have a calm, organized, efficient brain!

    • brittanyfichterwrites@gmail.com on October 2, 2014 at 3:58 am said:

      That’s definitely a lot of responsibility to take on at work! When I was student teaching, we had a student who could not remember the morning routine, even though the teacher posted it on the board every day. When we made him a personal picture/prompt checklist, however, and taped it on his desk, he did much better. It was so much easier to simply point to his list than to walk him through the steps every time he got distracted. He was a really smart kiddo! He just needed a boost when it came to organizing his time and remembering what came next.

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