If your child is finding it hard to concentrate and stay on task, this is because there is part of their brain that isn’t fully developed yet. At school, they may take their cues from the teacher or the classroom set up, but at home they need to call on “executive function” to manage their learning, as they don’t have these cues to rely on.

What is executive function?

So what is executive function? Think of it as the brain’s higher command centre. It is responsible for thinking, planning, organising, concentrating, managing our mental resources and is involved in learning.

Dr Thomas Brown, an eminent psychologist who works with children and adults with ADHD, has developed a model of executive function. He divides executive function into 6 areas or ‘clusters’:

  • Activation: This includes organising tasks and materials, estimating time, prioritising tasks and getting started on tasks
  • Focus: focusing, sustaining focus and shifting focus to tasks
  • Effort: regulating alertness, sustaining effort and processing speed
  • Emotion: managing frustration and modulating emotions
  • Memory: utilising working memory and accessing recall
  • Action: monitoring and regulating self action. Impulse control.

These areas can overlap and influence each other.

The problem is that executive function is still developing in children. In fact it is not fully developed until well into adulthood, around the age of 24. While supporting our children at home, we may need to assist them with executive tasks such as helping them to plan out their learning and manage their time, as well as bringing their focus back to the task in hand when they get distracted.

Stress and executive function

As can be seen in the article Upstairs, Downstairs Brain stress can have a negative effect on executive function. When the brain is stressed or anxious (or even bored or overstimulated), it can cause the child to go into “fight, flight or freeze” mode, which inhibits learning and executive functions. This is why it is very important for children to regulate their emotions so they can learn and concentrate properly, and practice self-control.

Executive function and special educational needs

Children with impaired or delayed executive function may have difficulties with planning and organisation, thinking ahead, controlling their emotions and impulses, paying attention, persistence and working memory. This may be seen in children with ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder and Sensory Processing Disorder.

How we can help a child with executive function

  • Help them regulate their emotions. Speak to them about what they are thinking and feeling. Try deep breathing or doing a mediation or grounding activity. There are some ideas in this article Learning in the time of COVID-19
  • Establish a routine. Just as in the classroom, routines can give them cues so they don’t have to plan or remember what happens next.
  • Create a system for organising their learning materials and books, so they know exactly where to find things they need for learning. This could include using folders, index dividers, colour coding or labelling. If you involve your child, they will guide you to the best system that suits their way of thinking, and it will also help them to learn how to use the system.
  • Use planners and timetables. This will help them to become more organised and stay on track, as they can see what they have to do and use these to plan and manage their time. It is not enough though to just give them daily planners and timetables, we also have to show them how to use them.

It is now believed that executive function and impulse control are more important than IQ for success at school. Source https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4210770/


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