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Resource Article: Executive Functioning

Executive Functioning

What is “executive function?”

Executive function is a term used to encompass many of the complex functions the brain performs in order to complete a variety of tasks, academic and otherwise. Two ADHD researchers, Dr. Russell Barkley and Dr. Tom Brown, describe executive function as those “actions we perform to ourselves and direct at ourselves so as to accomplish self-control, goal-directed behavior, and the maximization of future outcomes.” In other words, executive function is the plan, the action, and the result of multiple parts of the brain working together to produce a desired outcome.

Dr. Brown uses a metaphor where he compares executive function to the conductor’s role in an orchestra. The conductor 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. Another metaphor demonstrating the complexity of executive function is described as a team of conductors and co-conductors of a mental ability orchestra or the coaching staff of a mental ability athletic team.

Components of Executive Functioning

Based upon material from Barkley, Brown, and Gioia (co-developer of the BRIEF – Behavior Rating Scale of Executive Functions), Chris Dendy, outlined components of executive functioning that impact school performance which include:

  • working memory and recall (holding facts in mind while manipulating information, accessing facts stored in long-term memory)

  • activation, arousal, and effort (getting started, paying attention, finishing work)

  • controlling emotions (ability to tolerate frustration, thinking before acting or speaking)

  • internalizing language (using “self-talk” to control one’s behavior and direct future actions)

  • complex problem solving (taking an issue apart, analyzing the pieces, reconstituting and organizing it into new ideas)

  • shifting/inhibiting (changing activities, stopping existing activity, stopping and thinking before acting or speaking)

  • organizing/planning ahead (organizing time, projects, materials, and possessions)

  • monitoring (self-monitoring and prompting).

Executive functioning deficits may be divided into two categories:


writing essays,

reading comprehension/recall,

memorizing information,

completing complex math tasks



initiating assignments,

completing steps of assignment,

time management,

use of self-talk to direct behavior,

planning ahead

Some may mistake deficits in essential related skills for laziness or a behavioral choice. It is essential to understand that a neurological deficit makes these tasks extremely difficult for students with executive functioning deficits.

Academic challenges such as writing essays requires a multitude of skills to work in unison in order to express ideas in a logical and coherent manner. For example, one must hold ideas in their mind, act upon and organize ideas, retrieve grammar, spelling and punctuation rules from long-term memory, manipulate all this information, organize the material in a logical sequence, and review and correct errors. Similarly, in the study of mathematics, one must memorize facts, recall steps/formulas, and apply the information to solve problems of varying degrees of complexity.

Compensatory Strategies

These strategies address deficits in written expression, mathematics, time management, and more general areas of academics.

Written Expression Strategies:
  • Dictate information to a “scribe”
  • Use graphic organizers to provide visual prompts
  • Use Post-it notes to brainstorm essay ideas
  • Develop story boards using pictures in visual frameworks (label, expand, format)
  • Average two grades on essays – one for content and one for grammar
  • Reduce quantity of written work
  • No penalization for spelling errors

Math Strategies:

  • Use of a calculator
  • Visual Posting (i.e., key information such as multiplication table, formulas, steps, etc.)
  • Use paired learning (teacher explain problem, student makes up their own example, swap problems, and discuss/correct answers).
  • Use mnemonics (memory tricks) such as acronyms

Time Management Strategies:

  • Create checklists and “to do” lists, estimating how long tasks will take
  • Break long assignments into chunks and assign time frames for completing each chunk
  • Use visual calendars at to keep track of long term assignments, due dates, chores and activities
  • Use technology software to manage schedules
  • Write the due date on top of each assignment

General Strategies:

  • Provide directions in writing and verbally
  • Use color to highlight important information.
  • Extended response time
  • Extended time to complete assignments/tests
  • Divide long-term projects into segments with separate due dates and grades
  • Organize work space to minimize clutter
  • Consider having separate work areas with complete sets of supplies
  • Schedule a routine and time to clean and organize work space

The Arlyn School Program – IPPG

In addition to incorporating the strategies cited above, Arlyn School also provides direct instruction and opportunities to practice, master, and demonstrate executive function skills through the iPPG program (Individualized Program for Personal Growth). The iPPG is a comprehensive program that promotes academic and social/emotional skills in accordance with the individual and unique needs of each student. The iPPG was developed by Arlyn Faculty in consultation with collegial experts and is based upon research conducted by the Search Institute.

Lastly, Arlyn School offers additional, concentrated support in developing executive function skills through a Learning Strategies class which prepares students for success in high school and/or for post-secondary education. Course topics vary according to the individualized needs of students including reading improvement skills, such as scanning, note-taking, and outlining; library and research skills; listening and note-taking; vocabulary skills; and test-taking skills. This course may also include exercises designed to generate organized, logical thinking and writing. Student’s receive instruction and support in developing and maintaining organizational systems to manage materials and assignments.


Arlyn School faculty recently presented a Parent Workshop on executive functioning and identified strategies to address deficits. The website,, was the primary source used in providing comprehensive, parent-friendly resources on this topic. For reference, Chris Dendy is an author, speaker, classroom teacher, school psychologist, mental health counselor, local and state level mental health administrator, lobbyist and executive director of a statewide mental health advocacy organization, and national mental health consultant on children’s issues. She is also the mother of three adult children with ADHD and the co-founder of Gwinnett CHADD, serving as their clinical advisor, and was later inducted into the CHADD Hall of Fame for outstanding contributions to the field. We greatly appreciate her knowledge and expertise in this area.