Executive Functions Development and Learning Disabilities

Elkanon Goldberg states “The human brain is the most complex natural system in the known universe.”

Many researchers suggest that executive functions can be thought of as a set of multiple cognitive capacities that underlie a person’s ability to engage; in planning purposeful goal-directed intentional action, to sustain focused and vigilant attention, to inhibit and refrain from internal or external distractions, to select problem-solving strategies and mediate outcome, to use efficient cognitive flexibility to shift thoughts and actions between activities and tasks, to maintain persistence towards the attainment of a goal and to increase understanding of oneself in relation to others, time and environments.

Marpou’s Model of Executive Functions includes the following dimensions:

  • Initiation and drive or ‘starting behavior’ to respond to incoming information
  • Response inhibition or ‘stop behavior’ to inhibit automatic responses to maintain goal-directed behavior
  • Task persistence or maintaining behavior utilizing working memory
  • Organization and sequencing one’s thoughts and actions for identification of one’s goal, planning
  • Generative thinking for problem solving and creating solutions
  • Awareness to gain insight to use feedback and modify one’s thoughts and actions

The importance of executive functions is critical to the learning process in all domains for cognitive development, academic skills, behavioral management and interpersonal development. The infant’s early ability to focus sustained attention to the caretaker and respond with eye contact and symbolic gestures helps generate the development of the brain’s circuitry that opens the channels for organizing and learning visual, motoric and verbal information. As a toddler, children begin to develop more purposeful and goal-directed behaviors to engage the caretaker in meeting their needs and to begin to self-regulate to meet their needs themselves. When children begin their formal educational process, their executive functioning becomes increasingly engaged in sequencing, organizing, utilizing working memory to temporarily hold new information, directing thoughts and actions towards problem solving solutions and self- reflection. As a child’s educational world becomes more complex for the development of basic skills for reading, math, writing, managing rule-governed, goal-directed behaviors and for interacting with interpersonal relationship skills, the development and maturity of the underlying neural mechanisms for executive functioning become increasingly more important.

The child that has a Specific Learning Disability in a cognitive domain will face learning challenges that often lead to feelings of frustration and impact of the development of executive functions for support. For example, if a child has a specific reading disability for using phonetics to decode words, the ability to sustain focused attention, sequence and organize the visual individual or blends of letters, plan a purposeful approach and maintain persistence to the task may be interrupted by the child’s frustration and/or anxiety, creating a non-productive feedback loop that undermines the development and use of executive functions for the task leading to inefficient learning of phonetics for reading development in addition to the reading disability.

The implementation of early interventions when a child demonstrates slow development of executive functions to support all learning processes is critical. Thus, the research and understanding of the neural circuitry of the brain that govern the mechanisms for the development of a child’s executive functions has generated many resources for use by both parents, educators and professionals.

Some of those resources are listed below:
McCloskey, George, Perkins, Lisa A, Van Divner, Bob.(2009) Assessment and Intervention for Executive Function Difficulties. Taylor & Francis Group, LLC, New York, NY.
Meltzer, Lyn (Ed.) (2007). Executive Function in Education-From Theory to Practice. The Guilford Press, New York, London.
Goldberg,E. (2001). The Executive Brain: Frontal lobes and the civilized mind. New York: Oxford University Press.
Dawnson,P. & Guare, R. (2004). Executive skills in children and adolescents: A practical guide to assessment and intervention. New York: Guilford Press.
Mapou, Robert L, Spector, Jack (Ed). (1995). Clinical Neuropsychological Assessment: A Cognitive Approach. Plenum Press, New York.

Author: Dr. Charlotte Edwards, PsyD is a clinical psychologist and Director of the Counseling Connection’s Family Institute for Attention & Hyperactive Disorders. She is recognized for her 30 years of experience working with children, adolescents, adults and families with Attention Deficit Disorders, Learning Disabilities and mild Developmental Disabilities such as Asperger’s Syndrome.

Dr. Edwards holds a doctorate degree in clinical psychology and advanced training in neuropsychological assessment. She is the past president of the Illinois Learning Disability Association, past board member of the National Learning Disability Association and current member of the Professional Advisory Boards for ‘Step Out’ and Lincolnshire ‘ChADD’. Dr. Edwards provides comprehensive neuropsychological evaluations for neurodevelopmental/neurobehavioral disorders, individual and family psychotherapy and school consultations.