Processing Skills or Executive Function Deficits


What do we mean by executive function deficits?

When most people think of executive functioning, they think of a business executive managing a company or staff of people. The definition of an executive is: having the power to put plans, actions, or laws into effect, relating to managing an organization or administration and putting into effect plans, policies, or laws. Just like an executive, you or your child must “be in charge” of how you will go about applying these skills when at school, work or home. Leading expert, Dr. Russell Barkley defines executive function as those “actions we perform for ourselves and direct at ourselves so as to accomplish self-control, goal-directed behavior, and the maximization of future outcomes.”

Executive Functioning Metaphor

Another way of thinking about Executive Functioning (EF) is to picture a symphony orchestra whose members are all accomplished musicians.

Dr. Thomas Brown gives us this metaphor to help us understand by comparing executive function to the conductor’s role in an orchestra. The conductor manages the timing of when and who will bring in the strings, and then fade them out at the precise proper moment. He organizes various instruments to begin playing singularly or in combination, integrates the music by bringing in and fading certain actions, and controls the pace and intensity of the music. If there is no conductor to organize and integrate the individual musicians and sections of the orchestra (brass, wood wings, percussion, strings) to play their parts in the same piece at the same time, the music will not be very good.

Executive Functioning Deficits

The cause of problems with attention, learning, behavior, and social difficulties originates from the brain's ability to respond to the conductor’s commands appropriately. Research has identified the "executive functioning” part of the brain that is unable to manage, control, and integrate the necessary activities moment by moment for multiple tasks of daily life. When executive functioning (cognitive processing skills) are not fully developed, these tasks become very difficult. Deficits in these critical processing skills interfere with one’s ability to learn and focus in school, on the job, and with daily life tasks as identified in the following diagram by Dr. Thomas Brown.

Symptoms of Executive Functioning Deficits:

  •  getting started and finishing work
  •  remembering homework
  •  memorizing facts
  •  writing essays or reports
  •  working math problems
  •  problems with being on time
  •  controlling emotions
  •  completing long-term projects
  •  planning for the future
  •  repetition of taught lessons and conceptsh

Although the impact of executive function deficits on school success is profound, this fact is often unrecognized by many parents and teachers.” Until these deficits are identified and remediated, students will continually experience difficulties in school, work, and life. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, (NIMH) these children and  adults are at greater risk for a multitude of school problems, such as, failing a grade, skipping school, suspension, expulsion, dropping out of school, and not going to college.

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