The Many Definitions of Executive Function

It is suprisingly hard to define executive function, and this has major consequences for students who struggle with executive function, especially students with learning differences.

Part of the problem of arriving at a clear definition is historical; executive function as a concept lies somewhere between the fields of neuroscience, psychology, and education, and each field has interpreted executive function using its own lingo and perspective. Another problem is that the various components of executive function often overlap. If a student is struggling to use a graphic organizer to plan out their essay, are they struggling to organize and prioritize ideas or are they having difficulty shifting between main ideas and details?

This confusion is reflected in the varying definitions of executive function offered by leading researchers.

Russel Barkley proposes that there are four executive function processes, including:

  1. Nonverbal working memory
  2. Internalization of speech (verbal working memory)
  3. Self-regulation of affect/motivation/arousal
  4. Reconstitution (planning and generativity)

 

Thomas Brown suggests that there are six areas:

  1. Organizing, prioritizing, and activating for tasks
  2. Focusing, sustaining, and shifting attention to task
  3. Regulating alertness, sustaining effort, and processing speed
  4. Managing frustration and modulating emotions
  5. Utilizing working memory and accessing recall
  6. Monitoring and self-regulating action

 

One danger of having competing defintions and breakdowns of executive function is that we, as educators, find ourselves confused and unsure of how to proceed. After all, how can we support our students if we don’t know whether they are struggling with ‘reconstitution’ or ‘activating tasks’?

Yet there is a real danger in not understanding executive function because it will undermine our efforts to help our students effectively. In my work I often ask parents, students, and teachers for their definition of executive function. One student, who I will never forget, responded, “I don’t know what it is, but I don’t have it.”

This student had heard of executive function in his special education classrooms. The term was applied to all the things he was bad at — test taking, organizing papers, checking his work, and staying on task. Instead of being taught executive function strategies that helped him succeed, executive function had become another reason for his failures.

All students can engage successfully with executive function strategies if they are taught explicitly and given opportunities to reflect on their learning process. As educators we need a definition of executive function that is clear, concrete, and can help us empower our students.

The official SMARTS definition of executive function, based on the work of Lynn Meltzer, is, “Executive function (EF) is a broad term used to describe the complex cognitive processes that are the foundation for flexible, goal-directed behaviors.”

SMARTS breaks executive function down into five areas in order to identify how executive function impacts students’ lives.

  1. Shifting flexibly (cognitive flexibility)
  2. Goal setting
  3. Organizing and prioritizing
  4. Accessing working memory
  5. Self-monitoring and self-checking

 

Each of these executive function processes plays a crucial role in success, whether in school or in life. Teachers and their students can easily see how these processes are involved in learning and can therefore create strategies to address them.

As you learn more about executive function, I encourage you to make sure that your understanding is tied to concrete, real-world challenges and opportunities that you see your students face. No matter which defintion you prefer, apply your growing understanding of executive function to teaching strategies that are tied to real-world examples and you will be on the right track.

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director