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Children with Executive Function Challenges

Executive function is a set of thinking skills that include working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. Trouble with executive function can make it harder for kids to focus, follow directions, get organized, plan, and handle big emotions. All of these challenges can make reading and learning more difficult.

On this page:

What is executive function?

Our brains use a powerful set of cognitive tools to plan, organize, monitor, remember, and control our behavior and thoughts.  Executive function (EF) is the umbrella term used to describe the  set of cognitive skills used flexibly to direct goal-oriented behavior in new or unfamiliar situations (Anderson, 2002). Executive functions or executive skills (Cartwright, 2023) are the mental tools that allow us to organize and manage goal-directed tasks.

We use executive functions to manage and regulate  our thinking, feelings, and behaviors. For example, we use executive functions to do the following:

  • Concentrate and pay attention
  • Plan and remember the steps needed in tasks
  • Solve problems and think creatively

Although there are several mental skills that fall under EF, three have been studied that influence critical thinking skills (Diamond, 2013): working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control. 

Learn more about what executive functions are and how they develop in children in the video below.

Working memory

Working memory is where information is stored and used temporarily. Our brains have limits on how much information we can store in working memory. Most people can work with 4-5 new things at a time. Working memory allows students to hold and manipulate information in their minds as they navigate words, sentences, and paragraphs. Working memory is thought to be “fixed,” meaning we can’t expand working memory through instruction or practice. However, we can teach students strategies for getting the most out of their working memory — one example is “chunking” information. 

Cognitive flexibility

Cognitive flexibility means our thinking can be creative or open to changes based on the situation or constraints. Having empathy,  taking other perspectives, or engaging in a creative thinking all require cognitive flexibility. Reading fiction and considering character motives and traits or using written response to show another perspective are ways to increase cognitive flexibility. 

Inhibitory control

Inhibitory control is what keeps us from making impulsive decisions, delaying gratification, and/or resisting temptations. Our brains use inhibitory control to manage our attention, behavior, emotions, and thoughts. Inhibitory control can be taught, but it requires sustained practice of “if-then” planning, self-discipline, stress reduction, and concentration techniques. Having self-control helps student to develop stamina and persist in reading, even when encountering unfamiliar words or breakdowns in understanding. 

How is executive function related to reading?

Reading involves the ability to decode, comprehend and respond to written texts. Both reading and executive functions rely on our brains to attend, remember things, think, and reason and to problem-solve. Classroom activities that promote attention, working memory, cognitive flexibility, and self-control can help students become more effective readers.  

Since the research on EF is new, the exact nature of the relationship between reading skills and EF is not well understood. We know that EF develops early and is related to oral language and vocabulary development (Allan and Lonigan, 2011). Peng et al. (2022) found a reciprocal relationship between the development of EF and language skills, finding that young students with language delays also had EF deficits.      

Other studies of reading and EF  (Feldon & Litson, 2021;  Zhang & Peng, 2023) suggest that EF may contribute more to reading success later, after children move beyond the initial phase of learning to decode. 

Only a few studies have examined teaching EF skills to support learning to read. Goodrich et al (2023) examined EF skills taught alongside early literacy skills to preschoolers, but the study did demonstrate any added benefit for teaching EF skills. More research is needed to understand the relationship of EF on reading and whether EF skills can/should be taught.     

What we do know: executive function and reading are related and can influence each other. For example:

  • Executive functions help the reader to set goals for reading a text, monitor understanding, and make reading repairs when needed. 
  • Reading exposes us to new words and ideas that can support EF skills related to creativity, problem-solving, and higher-level thinking.   
  • Students with poor EF may have a harder time paying attention, remembering what they read, and trouble drawing inferences. 
  • Students with reading difficulties may have less motivation, confidence, and interest in reading. Motivation and interest can impact reading stamina and perseverance to finish texts.    

How to support executive function skills in the classroom

Although this area is not widely understood, teachers can use evidence-based reading practices to promote executive function and reading. The chart below provides some examples.

Before Reading
  • Activate prior knowledge 
  • Preview the text structure and features
  • Ask students to make predictions
  • Set a purpose for reading
During Reading
  • Encourage students to ask questions 
  • Encourage students to stop and “get the gist,” visualize, or annotate main ideas and details 
After Reading
  • Go over main ideas
  • Discuss the author’s purpose and perspective 
  • Make connections to texts or experiences
  • Discuss how you read AND what you rea    
  • Break down complex tasks into a set of smaller and manageable steps
  • Use checklists, timers, calendars, or alarms to track progress and deadlines
  • Use pictures or acronyms to help children remember information. For example: ROY G BIV to remember the colors of the rainbow 
  • Use tools to support students’ thinking about the reading 
  • Examples: graphic organizers, outlines, templates, or note-taking strategies
  • Give concrete feedback to identify strengths and areas for improvement
  • Show students how to evaluate their own reading performance
  • Have students practice or adjust based on feedback

Clinical child psychologist Dr. Joyce Cooper-Kahn provides tips for setting up an “executive function-friendly” classroom in the video below. See our full interview with Dr. Cooper-Kahn

Especially for parents

Watch neuroscientist Dr. Adele Diamond explain how families can support executive functions.

Books about executive function

Children with traumatic brain injury (TBI)

A traumatic brain injury — even a milder one like a concussion — has a significant impact on a child returning to school after their injury. Problems with executive functioning are common. Sometimes a student’s TBI goes undiagnosed or is misdiagnosed as a learning disability or behavioral problem.

On our sister site, BrainLine, learn more about TBIs in children, returning to school after an injury, IEPs and accommodations, and additional resources for parents and educators.