What Are Executive Functions and How Do They Affect a Student's Learning? Executive functions are basically the management system of the brain. These mental functions work together to help us organize and manage the many tasks in our daily life. Impairments in our executive functions, which are thought to involve the frontal lobes of the brain, can have a major impact on our ability to perform such tasks as planning, prioritizing, organizing, paying attention to and remembering details, and controlling our emotional reactions. It t is similar to a conductor’s role within an orchestra – this is the best way to explain the role of executive functions. The conductor manages, directs, organizes and integrates each member of the orchestra. He cues each musician, so they know when to begin to play, how fast or slow to play, how loud or soft to play and when to stop playing. The music would not flow as smoothly or sound as beautiful without the conductor. An individual with ADHD may have impairment in several areas of executive functioning. Thomas Brown, clinical psychologist and leading researcher on executive functions, identifies six clusters of cognitive functions that constitute a way of conceptualizing executive functions.


Executive functions

A student with deficits in this area of executive functioning has difficulty getting school materials organized, distinguishing between relevant and nonrelevant information, anticipating and planning for future events, estimating the time needed to complete tasks, and struggles to simply get started on a task. A student who is easily distracted misses important information provided in class. He is distracted not only by things around him in the classroom but also by his own thoughts. He has difficulty shifting attention when necessary and can get stuck on a thought, perseverating only on that topic. When he has to sit still and be quiet in order to listen to a lecture or read material that isn’t very interesting and stimulating, he who has a hard time regulating alertness may become drowsy. It is not that he is overtired, rather he simply can’t sustain his alertness unless he is actively engaged. The speed at which a student takes in and understands information can affect school performance in addition to this. While some may have trouble slowing down enough to process information accurately, other students with ADHD process information very slowly. A student with impairments in this area of executive functioning may have a very low tolerance for frustration and be extremely sensitive to criticism. Difficult emotions can quickly become overwhelming and emotional reactions may be very intense. Working memory is a “temporary storage system” in the brain that holds several facts or thoughts in mind while solving a problem or performing a task. He may have trouble remembering and following teacher directions, memorizing and recalling math facts or spelling words, computing problems in his head or retrieving information from memory when he needs it in case he has impairments in working memory.