Term of Art: Executive Functions

“Mental activities associated with self-control, attention, focus, or concentration that allow an individual to achieve specific goals. Problems in executive function are associated with dysfunction at the frontal part of the brain. Mild or nonspecific deficits of executive functions are common in the general population. Executive functions also may be impaired by injury to the brain, fatigue, depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, and various psychological disorders, including learning disability, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Problems with attention, self-regulation, planning, and impulse control may be connected to differences in the processing of neurotransmitters, especially dopamine, in the brain.

Executive functions control four kinds of mental activities. Working memory is essential to the problem-solving process. Information must be held in mind and internalized while a task is being completed. Internalized or private speech allows people to use complex sets of rules in problem solving. These include rules for using sets of rules. Third is the control of emotions and impulses, which allows and individual to remain focused and to continually return to a path of progress toward a desired goal. This allows an individual to set aside the attraction of immediate gratification. The achievement of deferred greater gratification is the product of this kind of self-regulation. Fourth is reconstitution, a process of observing behaviors and then synthesizing components into new combinations. This function is essential to problem solving and survival in a complicated world.

Individuals with ADHD and learning disabilities may have problems in reading long assignments or completing writing projects, since these tasks require executive functions. These difficulties may be connected to differences in the way certain brain chemicals are processed in the prefrontal lobes.

Some individuals with executive function difficulties are also very impulsive, having a hard time considering alternatives and consequences before they act. In solving problems, they are likely to select the first alternative without weighing other possibilities. They often speak without thinking of the consequences of their statements. Some students with these problems get so fidgety that it is hard for them to sit through a 50- or 90-minute class session.

Many individuals with executive function difficulties experience problems with time. Understanding the passage of time and planning for the future or the completion of a task by a particular point in time can be challenge. These individuals may frequently arrive late to appointments or classes. Long-term academic projects are among the greatest challenges for students who have executive function difficulties.”

Excerpted from: Turkington, Carol, and Joseph R. Harris, PhD. The Encyclopedia of Learning Disabilities. New York: Facts on File, 2006.

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