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Executive Functioning

When does Executive Function Develop?

Executive function emerges during preschool and develops in correlation with frontal lobe development from childhood to approximately age 25. A baby's brain grows and develops by overproducing neurons, synapses, or connections. These are then pruned back around the age of three. This process of cutting back weak branches and allowing others to flourish repeats itself after the pre-puberty growth in the frontal cortex around age 11 for girls and 12 in boys. There is quite a significant change in the growing frontal lobe, during adolescence. Again, after this growth, a pruning back occurs and there is a loss of 1% of gray matter per year during the teenage years. What is actually happening is that the brain is consolidating learning and wrapping white matter (myelin) around connections to stabilize and strengthen them. It is usually called the "use it or lose it" years when hard wiring occurs.

When we look at the adolescent years, we see a time full of overwhelm, high emotion, poor self-monitoring, inflexibility and impulsive decision-making which results is risk taking behaviors. For those with learning disabilities, executive function dysfunction, ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ADD it is significantly more difficult because their frontal lobe is already compromised. Executive Functioning Deficits are often the underlying cause of, or associated with, a broad range of learning, behavioral and emotional disabilities. It can run in families. Early intervention with executive functioning problems can help a person compensate for these weaknesses. Executive Dysfunction is seen in the following diagnoses:


Anxiety Disorder

Autism (50% have symptoms of ADHD, 30% have a comorbid diagnosis of ADHD)

Bipolar Disorder


Conduct Disorder

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Learning Disabilities

Major Depression

Mental Illnesses

Oppositional Defiant Disorder

Social Phobia

Traumatic Brain Injuries

Because executive dysfunction is associated with so many disabilities it is important to interview the parents extensively about their scholar to get a sense of whether or not the executive function issues are being properly addressed. Too often only one or two areas of executive function are identified and addressed when there are a number of other areas that need attention. For instance, frequently scholars with EF disorder do not know how to approach a problem. It can be a relatively simple math problem or a major project at school. Starting is the issue. How do you decide where to start? What can I use as cues? How long is this going to take? How do I chunk this down into doable tasks?

Frequently, the EF dysfunction is not particularly noticeable until a scholar transitions to middle or high school when expectations for independent work suddenly increase. Sharing the narrative as you deal with a problem and supporting the scholar by cuing them to know what to do-Do NOT cue to do

  • "Have you ever done anything like this before?"

  • "How are you going to decide what to do first?"

  • "How are you going to know what is most important?"

This gives guidance without giving answers. You are working on creating that internal narrative that helps the scholar to navigate through the problem. If its a math assignment, let the scholar do half with no prompts then use a different color or otherwise designate what was done with prompts. If the teacher does not know what the scholar can do independently it is difficult to know what has to be taught again.

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