Executive Function and Academic Behavior
Executive Function Thinking Skills
Sequence of Development
Working memory (nonverbal)
Internalization of speech (verbal working memory)
Self-regulation of Affect/Motivation/Arousal Reconstitution
Developmental Tasks Requiring Executive Skills
Developmental Tasks Requiring Executive Skills
Planning for Transitions
As Dawson & Guare (2010) explain, in recent years the research base on the concept of executive function or skills has expanded beyond a focus on impairment, such as head injury, to address typical brain development, and the term has become more familiar to parents and teachers alike as they work to understand why some children struggle in school in the absence of an obvious learning disability or emotional disorder. Furthermore, the way schools provide services to students with learning impairments has shifted from a “discrepancy model” to a response-to-intervention (RTI) model (see: Response to Intervention below) along with an emphasis on evidence-based practice (p. vii).
Executive function is a neuropsychological concept referring to the high-level cognitive processes required to plan and direct activities, including:
• Task initiation and follow-through
• Working memory
• Sustained attention
• Performance monitoring
• Inhibition of impulses, and
• Goal-directed persistence
(See: How We Learn and Think – How the Brain Develops)
While the groundwork for development of these executive skills starts before birth, they develop gradually and in a clear progression through the ﬁrst two decades of life. From the moment that children begin to interact with their environment, adults have expectations for how they will use executive skills to negotiate many of the demands of childhood – from the self-regulation of behavior required to act responsibly to the planning and initiation skills required to complete chores and homework. Parents and teachers expect children to use executive skills even though they may understand little about what these skills are and how they impact behavior and school performance (p. vii).
Executive skills have also assumed an increasingly important role in the explanation of Attention-Deﬁcit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) (p. viii). An increasing number of children seem to struggle in school because of weaknesses in executive skills even when they do not meet the diagnostic criteria for ADHD or another disorder.
Human beings have a built in capacity to meet challenges and accomplish goals through the use of high-level cognitive functions called executive skills. These are the skills that help to decide what activities or tasks will be paid attention to and which ones are chosen to do (Hart & Jacobs, 1993). Executive skills allow organization of behavior over time and override immediate demands in favor of longer-term goals. Through the use of these skills activities can be planned and organized, sustain attention can be sustained and persisted to complete a task. Executive skills enable the management of emotions and monitor thoughts in order to work more efficiently and effectively. Simply stated, these skills help to regulate behavior (p. 1).
In a broad sense, executive skills help to do this in two ways. One way involves the use of certain thinking skills to select and achieve goals or to develop problem solutions.
Executive Function Thinking Skills:
• Planning – The ability to create a roadmap to reach a goal or to complete a task. It also involves being able to make decisions about what’s important to focus on and what’s not important.
• Organization – The ability to design and maintain systems for keeping track of information or materials.
• Time management – The capacity to estimate how much time one has; how to allocate it; and how to stay within time limits and deadlines. It also involves a sense that time is important.
• Working memory – The ability to hold information in mind while performing complex tasks. It incorporates the ability to draw on past learning or experience to apply to the situation at hand or to project into the future.
• Metacognition – The ability to stand back and take a bird’s-eye view of oneself in a situation. It is an ability to observe how to problem solve. It also includes self-monitoring and self-evaluative skills (e.g., asking, “How am I doing?” or “How did I do?”) (p. 1).
These skills help to create a picture of a goal, a path to that goal, and the resources that will be needed along the way. They also help remember the picture even though the goal may be far away and other events come along to occupy attention and take up space in memory. But in order to reach the goal other executive skills also need to be used to guide our behavior as the path is moved along. These include the following:
• Response inhibition – The capacity to think before acting. This ability to resist the urge to say or do something allows time to evaluate a situation and how a certain behavior might impact it.
• Emotional control (also called self-regulation of affect) – The ability to manage emotions in order to achieve goals, complete tasks, or control and direct behavior.
• Sustained attention – The capacity to attend to a situation or task in spite of distractibility, fatigue, or boredom.
• Task initiation – The ability to begin a task without undue procrastination, in a timely fashion.
• Flexibility – The ability to revise plans in the face of obstacles, setbacks, new information, or mistakes. It involves adaptability to changing conditions.
• Goal directed persistence – The capacity or drive to follow through to the completion of a goal and not be put off by other demands or competing interests.
For the most part these skills are not needed to manage our day-to-day habits and routines. They are needed to face a new challenge or resolve, or to pursue a goal.
As was noted above, executive skills are built in. But while they are built in, executive skills obviously are not developed at birth, or for some time after that. They’re beginnings are seen in the infant and toddler and even more of them in the 5-year-old. But even in the 15-year-old, the lack of planning, time management, or especially inhibition is amazing. So these skills, which are at the heart of self-regulation or self-control, begin to develop in early infancy and continue to develop well into adolescence and early adulthood. Understanding how these skills improve through childhood, can begin the understanding of how much control children exercise over themselves at different ages. This information in turn can help adults to know how much support and structure to provide as children develop (p. 2).
Sequence of Development
As they unfold, they are influenced by the genes that are inherited from parents as well as by biological and social environments. If parents did not have good organization or attention skills, chances are increased that the child will have executive skill problems. If a child is raised in a biologically or socially toxic environment where lead exposure or psychological trauma takes place there is an increased likelihood that executive skills will suffer. However, assuming that no genetic or environmental disasters take place, executive skills will begin to develop and show themselves soon after birth in a slow progression to full adult development.
Barkley’s (1997) theory of executive function attempts to provide a sequence for the development of these skills beginning in infancy. Barkley’s model contains five essential elements: behavioral inhibition; working memory (nonverbal); internalization of speech (verbal working memory); self-regulation of affect/motivation/arousal; and reconstitution (Barkley, 1997, p. 191). The cornerstone of this model is behavioral inhibition, which begins to emerge in the 5- to 12-month age range. This ﬁrst executive function has three properties that allow the delay or stoppage of a behavior:
1. The ability to delay or prevent the response leading to an immediate consequence so that some later occurring consequence may impact behavior (“I won’t make this sarcastic comment now that would annoy my teacher. I’ll listen quietly so she’ll respond positively to me later”).
2. The ability to stop ongoing behaviors when they prove unsuccessful (“The comments I’m making are not getting a positive response from my teacher”).
3. The ability to manage distractions or interruptions that could interfere with the work of other executive skills (“I need to move away from my friend because his comments are distracting me from keeping in mind what my teacher is saying”).
Thus, behavioral inhibition helps a person to think before acting and to decide when and if to respond. It precedes the other executive functions and shields them from interference (p. 6).
• Inhibit prepotent response
• Interrupt an ongoing response
• Interference control
Without inhibitions, it is easy to see that the ability to use planning, goal-directed persistence, and so on would be very difﬁcult. For the infant, inhibition is the ﬁrst and most basic step in self-control because it gives the infant the power to respond or not respond to a person or event. Throughout life this ability is used to stop or delay a response as a way both to manage personal behavior and to inﬂuence the behavior of others.
While behavioral inhibition gives the infant some control over what to respond to (e.g., “I can respond or not respond to this person in front of me making the funny face”), the infant remains stuck in the present. Without some type of memory, some ability to represent real people and events in the mind, the infant can only respond to what he or she can see/hear/touch and so on, right now, in this place right here.
Working memory (nonverbal)
• Holding events in mind
• Manipulating or acting on the events
• Imitation of complex behavior sequences
• Retrospective function (hindsight)
• Prospective function (forethought)
• Anticipatory set
• Sense of time
• Nonverbal rule-governed behavior
• Cross-temporal organization of behavior
The development of nonverbal working memory skill begins in the 5- to 12-month age range and involves the ability to hold information “on line” in the mind. This gives the infant the rudimentary capacity to move beyond “right now” and “right here.” Nonverbal working memory becomes the foundation for the child’s ability to make decisions and control behavior even though a person or an activity is not present here or now. As information and experience increase, the child develops the ability to look backward and forward (“hindsight” and “forethought”; Barkley, 1997, pp. 165-166), to mentally manipulate events, and to imitate more complex behaviors. With the expansion of his or her mental life, the child becomes less tied to the events and consequences of the immediate situation, of here-and-now “real life.” Because of this, behavior can be brought under control of mental representations (“Last Saturday, after I ﬁnished cleaning my room, mom took me and a friend out for pizza. I’ll ask her if we can do that again after I clean my room”). Obviously the infant does not have this capacity but, in the ability to hold a picture of the mother in his or her mind, we can see the beginnings of this control.
Internalization of speech (verbal working memory)
• Description and reﬂection
• Self-questioning/problem solving
• Rule-governed behavior (instruction)
• Generation of rules and meta-rules
• Reading comprehension
• Moral reasoning
Internalization of speech is the next of the executive skills to develop according to Barkley (1997, p. 174). Acquisition of language provides the child with a powerful tool for control of the environment. People, objects, and actions and the images of these that the child has formed in nonverbal working memory can now be represented with words. More important, these words provide the child with a means for exercising some control over the world. It is no longer necessary for the child to walk to his or her mother or point to what he or she wants. Instead the child can use words to accomplish what previously took physical actions. Language also becomes an increasingly powerful means for adults (and other children) to regulate the child’s behavior.
What begins as management of behavior by the language of other people gradually shifts in part to self-management. Initially, the child accomplishes this by adopting the adult words and publicly saying them to him- or herself. According to Barkley, this self-speech is evident in the 3- to 5-year-old and becomes increasingly more private or covert until it is largely internalized by 9-12 years. This skill involves much more than basic self-control. Over time, internalization of speech facilitates the development of rules, problem-solving strategies, self-monitoring, self-instruction, and metacognition.
Self-regulation of Affect/Motivation/Arousal Reconstitution
• Self-regulation of affect
• Objective/social perspective taking
• Self-regulation of motivation
• Self-regulation of arousal in the service of goal-directed action
The fourth skill in Barkley’s model is self-regulation of affect/motivation/arousal (Barkley, 1997, p. 211). The earliest manifestation of this skill comes in the 5-month range and becomes more evident when locomotion develops. It involves a number of subskills including regulation of emotional and motivational states, regulation of arousal, and the capacity for social perspective taking. The development of this skill can give (p. 7) emotional and motivational value to the mental representations that the child is forming in working memory. Initially, for example, the child sees the mother’s face and associates this stimulus with a feeling of pleasure or comfort. With the representation of mother’s face in working memory, the child can experience the pleasure in the absence of the “real” stimulus and be motivated/aroused to seek the mother. Thus, the pleasurable representation triggers a drive that leads to a motor response. Behavioral inhibition may come into play when the child crosses paths with a potentially distracting stimulus (e.g., a favored toy), but is able to ignore this and continue in pursuit of the original goal. As the child’s representational experiences grow and acquire emotional value, and as hindsight and forethought expand across time, choices multiply and the child is freed from control by the immediate environment. Longer-term goals (from the infant’s search for the mother to the teenagers search for a college) become increasingly more powerful factors in setting a behavioral direction. Language is the next factor to signiﬁcantly enhance this capacity.
• Analysis and synthesis of behavior
• Verbal ﬂuency/behavioral ﬂuency
• Rule creativity
• Goal-directed behavioral creativity and diversity
• Behavioral simulations
• Syntax of behavior
The ﬁnal element to develop in the Barkley model is reconstitution, deﬁned as the “analysis and synthesis of behavior” (1997, p. 185). This executive skill enables the individual to divide more complex behavioral sequences into component units (analysis) and recombine them in novel ways (synthesis) to solve new problems or reach new goals. Hence, reconstitution represents cognitive and ‘behavioral flexibility, fluency, and creativity. Barkley sees this skill as representing the capacity for covert rehearsal or simulation before making a decision on how best to proceed. Thus, it is an opportunity for the child to ﬁnd a good ﬁt between a problem or goal and a behavioral strategy. This obviously is a more sophisticated and later-developing skill that, based on research about children’s planning ability, emerges in its early stages at about 6 years.
These skills, then, are critical if children are to develop complex independent living and problem-solving abilities. Although executive skills begin to emerge in early infancy, they reach a reasonable level of development only by mid-to-late adolescence. It is at this point that relevant adults (e.g., parents, teachers, employers) begin to feel more conﬁdence in the self-regulatory ability of the teenager. This increased conﬁdence is reflected in the choices and opportunities that are made available such as a driver’s license, less restricted work hours, course selection, and credit cards. Prior to this development, adults help compensate for incomplete development by “lending” their frontal lobes or executive skills to the child.
This happens in one of two ways. The ﬁrst is direct, coming in the form of directives, limits, and rules. For example, in the toddler who has little impulse control, moving toward potential danger typically leads to a sharp “No!” Or for the young child who is unable to make and follow a plan the adults must construct the plan and then prompt or cue each step, not completing the task for the child but ensuring that with help they are successful. In effect, adults are a surrogate frontal lobe that operates for the child as a set of supplementary executive skills. However, adults are not there indeﬁnitely to provide these skills. Rather, they are there to prompt and to teach, and then to step back as the child’s own executive skills unfold.
The second method involves structuring the environment in a way that compensates for underdeveloped skills. For example, with a toddler gates are used to prohibit entry or escape. The environment is ordered and labeled with pictures or words to help organization (p. 8).
For the adolescent that’s gated off includes access to alcohol, drugs, and weapons. They are held in a controlled environment – school – where their options only gradually expand. This model is not universal, but it certainly prevails in western culture (and gradually emerges in developing countries).
Developmental Tasks Requiring Executive Skills
Moving from theory to a concrete description of the kinds of tasks children and teenagers perform that require executive skills, Table 1.1 lists speciﬁc tasks or behaviors adults commonly expect children to be able to perform in different age ranges. In reviewing this table, the reader should keep in mind that there are developmental variations between children such that at any given age some children can perform tasks at an independent level while other children will require cuing, supervision, or even assistance to perform the same tasks. This table should be considered as approximate rather than explicit guidelines for behavioral expectations at any age level.
Determining the level of a child’s executive skills in relation to these developmental tasks can help to understand the “goodness of fit” between the child and his or her world. This assessment in turn can help to judge the adjustments that may be needed in the degree of “frontal lobe” support provided by adults, whether modiﬁcations in adult expectations are called for, and whether environmental supports should be added or withdrawn. Such an assessment also sets the stage for determining the next set of skills to be taught as well as how these executive skills can be shaped to promote both success and independence (p. 9).
Age Range Developmental task
Preschool– Run simple errands (e.g., “Get your shoes from the bedroom”).
Tidy bedroom or playroom with assistance.
Perform simple chores and self-help tasks with reminders (e.g., clear dishes from table, brush teeth, get dressed).
Inhibit behaviors: don’t touch a hot stove, run into the street, grab a toy from another child, hit, bite, push, etc.
Kindergarten– Run errands (two- to three-step directions).
Grade 2 Tidy bedroom or playroom.
Perform simple chores, self-help tasks; may need reminders (e.g., make bed).
Bring papers to and from school.
Complete homework assignments (20 minutes maximum).
Decide how to spend money (allowance).
Inhibit behaviors: follow safety rules, don’t swear, raise hand before speaking in class, keep hands to self.
Grades 3–5 – Run errands (may involve time delay or greater distance, such as going to a nearby store or remembering to do something after school).
Tidy bedroom or playroom (may include vacuuming, dusting, etc.).
Perform chores that take 15-30 minutes (e.g., clean up after dinner, rake leaves).
Bring books, papers, assignments to and from school.
Keep track of belongings when away from home.
Complete homework assignments (1 hour maximum).
Plan simple school project such as book report (select book, read book, write report).
Keep track of changing daily schedule (i.e., different activities after school).
Save money for desired objects, plan how to earn money.
Inhibit/self-regulate: behave when teacher is out of the classroom; refrain from rude comments, temper tantrums, bad manners.
Grades 6-8 – Help out with chores around the home, including both daily responsibilities and occasional tasks (e.g., emptying dishwasher, raking leaves, shoveling snow); tasks may take 60-90 minutes to complete.
Babysit younger siblings or for pay.
Use system for organizing schoolwork; including assignment book, notebooks, etc.
Follow complex school schedule involving changing teachers and changing schedules.
Plan and carry out long-term projects, including tasks to be accomplished and reasonable timeline to follow; may require planning multiple large projects simultaneously.
Plan time, including after-school activities, homework, family responsibilities; estimate how long it takes to complete individual tasks and adjust schedule to ﬁt.
Inhibit rule breaking in the absence of visible authority.
High school – Manage schoolwork effectively on a day-to-day basis, including completing and handing in assignments on time, studying for tests, creating and following timelines for long-term projects, and making adjustments in effort and quality of work in response to feedback from teachers and others (e.g., grades on tests, papers).
Establish and reﬁne a long-term goal and make plans for meeting that goal. If the goal beyond high school is college, the youngster selects appropriate courses and maintains GPA to ensure acceptance into college. The youngster also participates in extracurricular activities, signs up for and takes SATs or ACTs at the appropriate time and carries out the college application process. If the youngster does not plan to go to college, he or she pursues vocational courses and, if applicable, employment outside of school to ensure the training and experience necessary to obtain employment after graduation.
Make good use of leisure time, including obtaining employment or pursuing recreational activities during the summer. Inhibit reckless and dangerous behaviors (e.g., use of illegal substances, sexual acting out, shoplifting, vandalism). (p. 10)
Planning for Transitions
As students with executive skills weaknesses progress through school, they face a number of naturally occurring social, cultural, and institutional challenges that are based on our assumptions about how children change as they age. These assumptions can inadvertently exacerbate the student’s executive skills weaknesses. For example, at the social and cultural level children will become increasingly more independent with time and it is expected that they will be able to handle more complex school tasks and more responsibilities as well become more effective at managing their own behavior. While we don’t leave 6-year-old children alone, we are willing to do this for limited periods of time with children of 11 or 12 based on this assumption of improved self-management. Similarly, we don’t expect 7- or 8-year olds to baby-sit without adult supervision, but we are willing to give this responsibility to a 14-year-old.
Schools also expect more independent application of previously learned skills, including improved time management, sustained attention to tasks, and self-regulation of behavior. In fact, consistent with this assumption, adults believe that as students’ age and progress through school, providing continued support may be a disservice to the student, under-mining the development of independence and self-management, and creating a roadblock on their path to adulthood. It has often been heard from parents, teachers, and school administrators that students need to be more “responsible,” “self-motivated,” and “independent” and that if we support them or modify tasks they are expected to do, they will not learn to sufficiently manage on their own and will not be prepared for the next level of school development. Such supports are sometimes derogatively referred to as “babying” or “enabling” the student, or “dumbing down” the task.
Given what’s known about executive skills development it can be argued that students with weaknesses in these skills are in fact among the most vulnerable to underperformance and failure in school. Furthermore, these problems are directly related to the reduction of naturally occurring supports that earlier served as surrogate frontal lobes for these students (p. 162). Further complicating the issue is the fact that as students age, underperformance or failure is more likely to be framed by adults as indicative of poor motivation, laziness, lack of responsibility, or some other behavioral (or moral) deﬁcit, as opposed to a skill deﬁcit within the child.
Viewed in this way, underperformance or failure often has a volitional or “willful” component, and therefore will change only if the student is motivated to change and undergoes an “attitude” adjustment. The problem is that executive skills weaknesses often present as if they were motivationally driven; that is, as if the student could exercise voluntary control over them. However, Russell Barkley (1997) has elegantly explained why this is not the case when he points to executive skills weaknesses as biologically based motivational deﬁcits.
Based on extensive research and clinical evidence, we know that executive skills exist and executive skill weaknesses exist. We also know that weaknesses in executive skills can have a signiﬁcant, adverse impact on school performance. Most important, we know that there are intervention models (e.g., coaching) that can facilitate the development of executive skills and lead to signiﬁcant improvements in behavior and academic performance and that these interventions can be faded over time. We also know that such weaknesses cannot simply be “willed” away.
As a result of these developing trends and the naturally occurring drop-off in adult and institutional supports, students who may not have struggled signiﬁcantly in earlier grades may now be exposed. This occurs because of the simultaneous increase in the level of performance demands and a decrease in the level of support. This exposure of executive skills weaknesses occurs not only in students as they move through school. We also have evidence that adults who may have performed well in one type of job situation may not be able to achieve the same level of performance or, in fact, may fail when they are promoted to another situation. This can happen when the new job demands a set of executive skills that were not previously important and thus there is an executive skill mismatch between the person and the job (Martin, Dawson, & Guare, 2007).
Prior to the time that the student passes through one of these transitional periods, executive skills weaknesses may not have been highly evident, because there has been sufﬁcient support from parents and teachers or because there have been the naturally occurring classroom supports noted above, or because situational demands were low enough for the weaknesses to either not impact performance signiﬁcantly or impact it only at the margins of performance. In these cases, adults may well assume or perhaps have been reassured that the child would “grow out of it.” In the absence of signiﬁcant difﬁculties prior to the transition, it may be easier for the receiving teachers to assume that the child is simply going through a temporary period of adjustment or that the performance drop-off is consistent with the developmental stage of the group as a whole.
Thus, the assumption is that he or she will develop the skill or “grow out of” the problem. For those students who don’t, it may be easier for teachers and administrators at the receiving level to see this as a responsibility or motivational issue. However, we would argue that students with seemingly benign proﬁles in the early grades who begin to struggle after a transition, have not suddenly become lazy, irresponsible, or unmotivated once they have moved to a more demanding level. Rather, the behavior and academic performance of the student has changed as a result of an acceleration of demands on executive skills and that the pejorative label applied to the student who appears to have the ability but does not perform is really a reﬂection of the social and cultural expectation that students will or should become more responsible (p. 163)
Unfortunately, students so labeled can develop an aversion to school or to particular aspects or tasks within school and as a result look task avoidant, unmotivated, and irresponsible. Particularly in middle school and beyond, we have often seen a corresponding deterioration in behavior. As mentioned above this behavioral deterioration reﬂects the students sense that it is better to appear deﬁant than “stupid.” Since such deﬁance represents the natural challenge of adult authority by adolescents, this behavior is often both accepted and even encouraged by peers.
Thus, not only does the student develop a strategy for avoiding failure but also for gathering some positive peer attention, and such a cycle can take on a life of its own. At the same time, these students may know and hear from others about how “bright” they are and about how they are not working up to their “potential,” while having no understanding or explanation for why they are not succeeding. They may well chalk up the behavior to “stupidity” and/or they may accept the labels that they have heard so often from adults that they are “lazy,” “unmotivated,” or “don’t work hard enough,” and so on.
These patterns of deﬁance and/or task avoidance can become self-fulﬁlling prophecies, as the failures continue without good explanation and as school becomes increasingly aversive. This type of situation can lead to mood disorders such as anxiety and depression and to a longer-term loss of conﬁdence and an inability to perform.
The difﬁculty is exacerbated by the fact that at times the student may actually rise to the occasion and perform adequately or even well, only conﬁrming the adult’s belief that the student has all the necessary skills but is choosing not to use them. The ability to succeed at times may come as a result of parental pressure, interest in a particular subject desire to please a particular teacher, or some temporary good ﬁt between the task and the student.
The adult may conclude at that point, “I knew you could do it if you just really tried” and then decide that any future failure is the result of a lack of true effort. The student, continuing without an adequate explanation, may well accept this judgment, but that only leads to further frustration or discouragement. Potentially, the situation becomes one more reason not to try, because one success in a host of failures is only more frustrating and discouraging.
For the child or adult with executive skills weaknesses, consistent sustained performance without signiﬁcant help and support is very unlikely because it requires an ability to overcome, by sheer determination alone, what is in fact a skill deﬁcit of the kind noted above as a biologically based motivational deﬁcit. Hence, it is not a weakness that can simply be “willed” away (p.163).
Given that students with executive skills weaknesses are particularly vulnerable during times of transition, if a decline in performance is evident and the student begins struggling at one of these major transition points, the following questions should be answered:
• Is there evidence that the student does better with supports, for example, homework help at home, or has he or she done better in the past with increased supports?
• What are the student’s weakest and strongest subject areas and is there evidence of differential performance? In general, areas of strength are likely to require less in the way of executive skills.
• Does the weak academic area put a particular premium on executive skills? Language arts or English writing assignments require more in the way of executive skills as do responses to inferential questions or other types of inferential problem solving such as math where there may be a number of options to arrive at a solution.
• Is there a discrepancy between the student’s ability and day-to-day production or achievement or a discrepancy between some measures (e.g., individual vs. group achievement tests) that might suggest that self-monitoring is a weakness?
• Does the student perform better when an adult is simply close by regardless of whether speciﬁc on-task cues are given?
• Is the area of weakness speciﬁcally related to an executive skill? For example, is the student struggling with organization of materials, time management, or planning/completion of projects?
Affirmative answers to any of these questions should lead to additional assessment of executive skills.
School personnel and parents who are involved with students at these transition points should avoid the assumption that because a student moves up, a drop in performance must be related only to increased demands and more difficult content to which the student will adjust to in time. While this may be true, these performance problems often relate to greater demands on executive skills that until now have not been signiﬁcantly taxed. This is especially true when students move from elementary to middle school, middle school to high school, and high school to college where executive skills demands are greatly increased and where teachers are often in the habit of attributing a drop in performance to the necessary learning curve and therefore to be expected, or to a student’s lack of motivation or responsibility given the demand for increased effort.
Once a performance problem emerges, it is important to identify the speciﬁc subject, situation, and/or behavior where the breakdown is occurring and what supports might be available to address the problem (e.g., homework clubs, coaches, peer tutors). The parties involved (student, teacher, parent) should be given an explanation of what is happening in speciﬁc behavioral terms, the executive skill involved should be labeled, and the intervention most apt to address the problems should be identiﬁed.
Whenever possible, the supports provided should not interfere with the student’s ability to participate in the class and should be compatible with the instructors teaching style and the expectations he or she has for his or her students. As noted earlier, the goal is to use the least amount of support necessary to help the student achieve successful performance and then to fade this help in a planned way so that the student gradually internalizes the executive skill. Keeping some type of data relative to the goal that has been set is important in determining whether the intervention is successful or whether modiﬁcations need to be made (p. 164).
Finally, in the delivery of services for children in these transition periods, a few cautions should be noted. Services should not be discontinued abruptly when the student experiences some initial success. Time-limited and short-term interventions assume that the student simply needed help in “getting over the hump.” In fact, if the issue is one of executive skill weakness, more sustained intervention will be required to resolve the problem, and the criterion for discontinuing external supports should be evidence that the student has acquired the skill and now is able to manage independently.
Services rarely, if ever, should be discontinued across the change of environments (e.g., one year to another, one school to another) since such a discontinuation assumes that the student has sufficiently mastered the skills to transfer to environments with new and unknown demands. If the student does show independent application of the skills and services are faded, performance should be passively monitored over one to two quarters to ensure that no decline has taken place. Whenever possible during these transition times, look for “goodness-of-fit” situations for the student. This might involve placement with teachers with instructional styles similar to those the student has been successful with in the past, greater organization and structure in the classroom, or a more active and hands-on teaching methodology. What constitutes the best fit depends on knowledge of both the student’s strengths and weaknesses and executive skills proﬁle along with that of the teacher’s and the classroom situation.
Even with the most successful student following a normal developmental progression, it should be kept in mind that frontal lobes do not fully develop until individuals are in their early-to-mid-20s. For students with executive skills weaknesses signiﬁcant enough to require intervention, full maturation may occur much later than that (p. 165).