Executive Functions and School

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For the sake of simplicity, let us boil down the list of EFs that affect children at school to the list proposed by my Toronto colleagues at Montcrest School and EFs2theRescue :

Emotional Control – the ability to recognize and regulate emotions in order to achieve goals, complete tasks, and direct behaviour

Flexibility –  the ability to revise a plan in the face of obstacles, setbacks, new information, or mistakes; involves adaptability to changing conditions

Goal Directed Persistence – the capacity to persevere and follow a task through to completion

Metacognition – the ability to self-monitor and self-evaluate by asking; “How am I doing?” or “How did I do?”

Planning & Organization – the ability to create a roadmap, make decisions, and prioritize for task completion; the ability to design and maintain systems for tracking information and materials

Response Inhibition – the capacity to stop, evaluate, and think before you act

Shifting and Time Management – the ability to move appropriately from one situation to another; the capacity to estimate and to use time effectively

Sustained Attention – the capacity to attend to a situation or task, in spite of distractibility, fatigue, or lack of interest

Task Initiation – the ability to begin a task in a timely fashion

Working Memory – the ability to hold information and past experience/learning in mind while performing complex tasks

Guiding children towards better executive functioning is a special challenge because children are often totally overwhelmed and confused by their struggles. They can often tell you things like, “I’m terrible at math” or “I’m not a good friend” or “I get in trouble for being a bad partner”. The way they explain it reveals their theory about why it is happening. Did you catch it?

I’m terrible  *  I’m not good  *  I am bad

Children are often all muddled up about the antecedents and consequences of their behaviour. Sometimes they know what triggers their difficulty (antecedent) – “My memory is horrible”. They might be able to tell you which aspect of their performance is the hardest (behavior) – “I can’t do presentations”.  They often know the way people respond to them (consequence) after they mess up, “Kevin! You’re ruining everything!”


They RARELY know and connect all three steps of the ABC model. They can almost never say, “Memory tasks are hard for me so I struggle with presentations which can be frustrating for my groupmates”.

Kids and EFs are complicated. It takes a well-trained teacher or coach to help a child understand and command their EF platform.

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