+ Executive Function: Its Impact on School Performance

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An absolutely indispensible book, “Teaching Teens With ADD and ADHD”, by Chris A Zeigler Dendy, has a chapter on the impact of executive function on school work.

Executive function  actions are “actions we perform to ourselves and direct at ourselves so as to accomplish self-control, goal-directed behavior, and the maximization of future outcomes” (Dr Russell Barkley).  And since these actions are cognitive, they are “done in our heads”, and thus not observable.

One expert uses the metaphor of an orchestra conductor: this function organizes various “instruments” to begin playing singly or in combination, integrates the “music” by bringing in and fading certain actions, and controls their pace and intensity.

Students with ADD and ADHD may have difficulty with some, but not all, of the following characteristics of executive function (teachers and parents:  think about how you might scaffold, prompt and support a child in these situations):

Working memory and recall

1.   Affects the here and now because of limited working memory capacity, weak short-term memory.  It also causes forgetfulness and the inability to keep several things in mind. 

As a result, students have difficulty performing mental analyses usch as math computations in their head, remembering a “to-do” list, remembering multiple requests.  They forget assignments, books, chores.

2.  Affects their sense of past events, causing difficulty recalling the past. 

As a result, students do not study past actions, and don’t learn easily from past behavior.  They act without a sense of hindsight, and repeat misbehavior.

3.  Affects their sense of time, causing difficulty holding events in mind (necessary to develop a sense of time and its passage).  They have difficulty using a sense of time to prepare for upcoming events and the future, and difficulty holding events in mind in the order they occurred (this is a basic building block for a sense of time). 

As a result, students can’t judge the passage of time accurately, or estimate how much time it will take to finish a task.  They may perceive time as passing slowly when tasks are boring, or become impatient when asked to wait (time drags).  They may occasionally hyperfocus on high-interest tasks and lose all track of time.  Their sense of time is like that of a much younger, non-ADD child.

4.  Affects their sense of self awareness, in a diminished sense of self-control. 

As a result, students don’t easily examine their own behavior, don’t easily change their own behavior.  They don’t see how their behavior affects others.

5.  Affects their sense of the future, limiting foresight: they live in the present and focus on the here and now.  They are less likely to talk about time or the future. 

As a result students have difficulty projecting lessons learned in the past into the future.  They have difficulty preparing for the future, and are less likely to do so. 

Activation, arousal and effort

1.  Affects their ability to start and complete a task, so that they appear unmotivated.  They have difficulty getting started, and difficulty maintaining effort. 

As a result, students procrastinate, don’t follow through and fail to finish school work.

2.  Affects their level of alertness and ability to pay attention, causing difficulty becoming alert enough to pay attention, as well as difficulty maintaining attention.  They may have sleep problems.  Students with ADD only (not hyperactive) can have low energy levels. 

As a result, students are easily distracted and don’t pay attention consistently; they don’t seem to have enough energy to get started or complete tasks (ADD).  They may be irritable because of sleep deprivation, and sleep in class.


1.  Affects their ability to inhibit their speech and behavior.  It causes difficulty with stopping to think before acting or speaking, as well as stopping behavior that’s getting them into trouble. 

As a result, students blurt out in class, talk back to teachers before they think, get into yelling matches or fights.  They act impulsively, get into trouble, and then — sometimes — get suspended.

Controlling emotions

1.  Affects the ability to control feelings, causing difficulty putting emotions on hold, or separating emotions from actions: they are one.  They have difficulty splitting facts from feelings (a skill needed to be objective). 

As a result, students are more emotionally reactive, more sensitive to criticism, are mainly concerned with their own feeling.  They have difficulty seeing another person’s perspective.  They may seem self-centered or immature; they may truly be selfish.

2.  Affects their ability to direct behavior toward goals, causing difficulty delaying gratification.  Students have difficulty regulating emotions to achieve goals.  They have a hard time putting up with tedious or boring activities.  They can’t focus on future goals; immediate feelings are most important.  They have trouble motivating themselves; rewards in school (grades) are too far in the future to be effective. 

As a result, students want to quit if they become bored with a task, or college, or a job.  They don’t stick with things and give up more easily than their peers.  Rewards must be received immediately.  They have difficulty generating their own intrinsic rewards (feeling good simply because the work is done). 

Internalizing language

1.  Affects internalization of speech or self-talk (it is delayed), causing difficulty using language to control oneself or directing behavior with one’s own voice. 

As a result students have trouble reflecting on, or thinking through, their actions beforehand.  They are less likely to use their past experiences, are less likely to follow rules.  They have difficulty managing their own behavior.

Taking an issue apart, analyzing the pieces, reconstituting and organizing it into new ideas 

1.  Affects their ability to to complex problem solving. 

As a result, students have a hard time analyzing and breaking down a problem.  They can’t determine what caused a problem or develop a plan to correct it.  They have trouble knowing how and where to start to solve a problem.

2.  Affects their spoken and written communication, causing weak verbal fluency, especially when they are trying to respond to a question or give a concise answer.  They have difficulty communicating with others. 

As a result, students have difficulty writing essays or reports, as well as sequencing and organizing ideas.  They have a hard time rapidly stringing words together, describing an issue in words, or expressing themselves rapidly and effectively.

When teachers and parents begin observing these problems, they need to begin devising ways to help the student, using prompts and scaffolding techniques, as well as explicitly modeling behaviors for the student.

sole source:”Teaching Teens With ADD and ADHD”, by Chris Zeigler Dendy.  Published by Woodbine House, 2000.  ISBN 1-890627-20-8.  Zeigler Dendy has a website at www.chrisdendy.com , and invites you to “visit me and my family” there.

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021   or  aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com

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