Executive function can be broken into two general areas:
1. Ability to focus attention and inhibit impulses in order to reach goals. Professionals often label children with difficulty in this area as attention deficit disordered.
A teacher gives instructions to begin a math assignment. Let's look in the head of a student with executive function difficulties in this area: "I need to open my math book. The noise in the fan is so interesting! Oh look, there's a blue bird sitting on the window." Children with executive function/attention deficit disorders are unable to sustain focus on the goal, which in this case is completing a math assignment.
2. Ability to create goals and a sequential plan in order to reach goals:
Before starting a math task, a student has to first plan out what tools are needed (a book, a pencil, paper). Then, a student has to know where to begin (what page in the math book?, where on the paper to write? what problems?). Children with executive function difficulty might sit there, not beginning with the class. They have difficulty initiating the first steps.
To get a better sense of executive functioning, Let's look at the brain areas responsible for each of these two general executive functioning areas.
In general, executive functioning skills are based in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain.
1. Creating a goal and a plan :
While the brain is not as discretely organized as the picture above, these skills are generally housed in the dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex.
Adjoining the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex on the left side is Broca's area(in purple). This is the area responsible for language and working memory.
The brain is structured like an onion with layers upon layers. The prefrontal cortex is a thick outer layer of neurons. Inside of the dorsolateral layer (and slightly inside), lay the hippocampus, and amygdala which are part of the limbic system.
All our memories are first created through the amygdala. This is why we can remember charged emotional events with such detail. Broca's area, our language center, lays on top of the amygdala in the outer layer of the brain, the neocortex. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex lays in front/overlapping with Broca's area.
To create a goal with a plan, we need to...
1. Have memories of past events to help us decide what to do/not to do(hippocampus)
2. Have an emotional attachment to this memory that will lead us to do it again/avoid it (amygdala)
3. Have words that can describe this memory in our head (Broca's area)
4. Be able to hold information (in words) within our working memory in order to act on the information(Broca's area).
5. Be able to sequence the language in an organized fashion to achieve a result(dorsolateral prefrontal cortex)
If we are missing any of these steps, we will appear disorganized or have difficulty initiating tasks.
Inhibiting impulses to maintain focus on the goal:
These skills are based in the orbital frontal pre-frontal cortex. The orbitofrontal cortex is the front-most part of the brain. It wraps under underneath, as seen in the picture below in red. Sometimes, the orbitofrontal cortex is called the ventro-medial cortex.
The orbitofrontal cortex is an association area in the brain that acts like a processing center with other brain areas such as the primary sensory and association cortices, the limbic system (emotions system). It also has connections to and from the pre-frontal areas responsible for motor planning. It is believed that the orbitofrontal/ventro-medial cortex helps integrate sensations, inhibit motor actions, and weigh options for risk/reward.
As mentioned earlier, in order for us to be able to regulate the incoming sensations in this front part of the brain, most of us verbally mediate to create a plan. Part of sticking to a goal is inhibiting our attention from wandering to incoming stimuli that is not related to our goal. One of the ways we do this is by prioritizing what sensations we should focus our attention using our inner language skills. Recent research confirms the interactions of narrative language and executive function (Friend, 2014).
Imagine a child bored in class. A child with ADHD might start fidgeting in the seat. By contrast, a typically developing peer will think " if I bounce around the room like Tigger, my friends are going to think I'm strange (risk). Therefore, I'm going to hold still in class(plan/inhibiting impulses) even though I'm bored."
Remembering the location of Broca's area (language area) from above, look at the brain development of a child with ADHD compared to a typically developing child in this time lapse footage from the National Institute of Health. Darker blue represents more connections among neurons. See here
Observe how much later in age the child with ADHD has brain connections from Broca's area to the orbito-frontal prefrontal cortex! Based on brain studies like this, it does raise the question- Is ADHD really a disorder or just a developmental delay? If it is a developmental delay, what would change in terms of treatment?
Improving Executive Function and ADHD through Language Instruction
Language is an integral part of executive function. Children who struggle to initiate tasks, maintain focus, keep organized, and inhibit impulses often benefit from learning how to improve their self-talk skills.
As parents, one easy way we can help younger children develop executive function is by talking aloud while we process information. "I see snow outside. Ohh. It must be cold. I will need a jacket. Let's go look for our warm coats." This outer adult language will help children improve their own inner language.
As teachers, we can also help children who struggle with initiating tasks, organizing information, and maintaining attention, by helping children verbally process each step and helping children create organization systems.
For children with ADHD, a recent NY Times article discusses research on how teaching children to monitor their thoughts can reduce symptoms of ADHD. How do we monitor our thoughts? With words! We stop the verbal clutter in our mind. Instead, we pause and ask ourselves "what am I thinking right now? What is my goal? What is my next step?"
Language forms the basis for our thoughts. Next time you find your thoughts wandering, observe how you pull your focus back to attention. This inner language is what we need to teach our students.
What resources have you all found most helpful to treat children with executive function difficulty? Please share in the comment section.
Friend, Margaret. The Union of Narrative and Executive Function: Different but Complementary Frontiers in Psychology, May 2014.
Executive Function Fact Sheet National Center for Learning Disabilities