Is Your Child Failing Because of Executive Functioning?

Is your child failing because of executive functioning deficits?

I have tested a lot of students over the years and I am still amazed at the failure rate for children who have a delay in executive functioning development.

What is executive function?

Executive function is a set of mental skills that helps you get things done. These skills are controlled by an area of the brain called the frontal lobe. Executive function helps you manage time.

Below are eight of the executive function skills that impact most on learning.

Impulse Control

Emotional Control

Flexible thinking

Working Memory


Planning and Prioritizing

Task Initiation


There are many subskills to each area.

What does executive function look like?

 Recently I tested some children in a group situation and watched as they worked through a comprehension test. There were the fast finishers, the late arrivals and the disinterested, to name just a few of the participants. I had been teaching one of the boys over a period of time (in support) and I knew that he was bright but was not showing his potential in testing results.

He finished the testing, I scored his answers and found that once again he had failed miserably. So, I decided that I would complete a little action research! I asked the pupil to come to my office and I repeated the test with him. This time he read the reading aloud and answered the questions orally. He scored one of the highest scores possible.

What does this result tell me? Procrastination, disengagement, inability to attend to a lengthy task, lack of resilience all play a part in the poor results. This child could read and comprehend at a high level. His problem was not reading, he couldn’t sustain his attention for any length of time.


Another example will show a different set of deficits. A student was continuously failing to begin, maintain and finish a task. I had a little chat to him and he aired his reasons for not completing assignments. He was continuously losing items that he needed-his pencil, rubber etc. He also couldn’t find what was needed in a very messy desk. All of these problems upset the pupil but he didn’t know how to remedy the situation.

After a chat, we used a permanent felt pen to draw a map inside his desk. We removed all the unnecessary materials to a bag that hung on his chair, we placed loose sheets in folders, we placed items inside the desk in identified spaces and we developed some self- monitoring ideas.

These bright children are not reaching their potential because of executive functioning delays. They need our support until they reach independence.

How can we help:

Identify the problem                                                                        

  • Write down the problem
  • Identify where to begin
  • Action plan

You may not be able to make the task easier or more interesting but there are small steps that can help. Here are some more specific action plan steps that I have found useful.

  • Acknowledge that the task may not be something your child is enthused about, even though it’s important.
  • Ask if you can help him get started but don’t do the work for him….. this only enables and can lead to learnt helplessness.
  • Showing empathy teaches him that there are things that we must do even though we don’t want to. The consequence for not doing these things is greater than the pain of working through the task.
  • Help him to keep track of the homework and assignments  and figure out the time needed for each task. Use a weekly schedule sheet and a daily planner to elaborate on steps to put the tasks into manageable actions.
  • Remain calm and notice the small changes that are developed through consistency and support.
  • Provide an incentive-this could be a snack or a special treat once the daily grind has been completed-eventually, the motivation would be a weekly item once the plan has gained some positive results for a period of time.
  • Normalize the behavior. Tell your child about the times that you struggled and had to begin a task and then maintain and finish. He will appreciate your honesty and empathy.

Is your child experiencing a problem that is affecting his results? Let’s all be a supportive community and help others who need support. Leave you comments below.

Have a great, interesting and  happy journey with your child’s learning.



Ann tutors children who have executive functioning difficulties and introduces strategies for them to improve their access to the curriculum.