Educación, Psicología & Ciencia

Executive Functions in the Schools

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Why study EF?


School Program

EFS (Executive Functions) are complex. Complex to assess, to work with and even to write about them; and even so, I chose this topic for my research and PhD dissertation. EFS comprise a diverse range of cognitive processes which underline many disorders and difficulties that children and youngsters present at school and everyday life. Through the understanding of all these cognitive processes – planning, working memory, attention, inhibition, self-monitoring, self-regulation and initiation, we will be able to develop different programs and individual interventions to help them, not only in educational settings but wellbeing in life (emotional and social development). It becomes a challenge.

Students use EF at school, to complete assignments, engage during the lessons, learn concepts, and behave appropriately. There are many studies which prove a direct relation between EF and achievement in math, language skills, reading comprehension and writing (Sluis, de Jong & van der Leij, 2004).

When children experiment delays in the development of different EF, their understanding of academic material and social interactions suffer (they may be unable to establish new friendships or interact socially).
Several common developmental disorders emerge during early childhood (e.g. LD, ADHD, ADD, autism) and are associated with impairment in EF. Many kids show “x” behaviors sometimes, however if these behaviors persist along the time, or increase their intensity or interfere with their everyday life, parents should be aware and ask for help. To present certain troubles in EF during childhood, it doesn’t mean that the kid presents a disorder, but often EF issues co-occur with learning, ADHD or developmental delays.

A Developmental Perspective of EF

We can find an incredible amount of EF Models (e.g. Postner & Snyder (1975), Schiffin & Schneider (1977), Shallice (2002), Baddeley (1996), Miller & Cohen (2001), Barkley (2011), Miyake (2000, 2012)). We will come back to them, but one of the models who helped me to understand most EF development is the model of Luria (1966, 1973, 1980).

Luria´s developmental model postulated the presence of different stages of development during childhood, linked to cortical maturation in our brains. Luria defended that higher cortical functions involved in EF required the interaction between the neurodevelopment of the brain and environmental stimuli (e.g. culture, history, social factors…).
Vygotsky developed a complex theory about language development and thought processes and the role of culture in the development of high level activities such abstraction memory and attention (a book which I highly recommend is Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes).

Luria proposed five stages in human development. These 5 stages in brain development match with the study of cognitive development proposed by Piaget (1936) – schemas, adaptation process (equilibrium, assimilation and accommodation) and stages of development. Notice that during the stage 4 and 5 (7-8 years), children start to develop complex mental processes as EF.

Luria´s model considers also the existence of Three Brain Systems; three neuropsychological mechanisms which work in separate but also interrelated systems. The 1º Unit is the Attention-Arousal System, the 2º Unit is in charge of Receiving Processing and Retaining Information and the 3º Unit is in charge of Programming, Regulation and Verification of Behavior. Luria’s concept of the three functional units was used as basis of the PASS theory and thus, the design of DN: CAS (Naglieri & Das) assessment test, originally developed at University of Alberta in Canada.


Luria´s Development Model


Three Brain Systems – Luria (1966)

What skills are affected by executive functioning issues?

There ´re many studies which link academic performance and EFS. Executive skills include working memory, self-monitoring, planning and prioritizing, flexibility, emotional control, impulse control, task initiation and organization.
EF is not a recognized category on DSM-V, but is a criterion for many disorders as ADHD. Currently many professionals are trying to develop adequate tests for a comprehensive assessment. For a diagnosis, It´s needed to discard other causes of the problem as hearing impairments or seizure disorders. Also we need to gather information as school records and behavior checklists at home (family) and friends. We use also questionnaires, screaming forms, intelligence testing, cognitive processing testing, child observation and interviews.

In order to help children with executive function troubles, professionals use to design classroom accommodations that teachers can implement in small groups or individually and family coaching (to provide strategies to implement at home and social contexts).
For that, we need to assess the different cognitive processes and identify strengths and weaknesses in individual profiles and develop individual strategies, treatments and possible solutions. EFS will develop during the adolescence and even early adulthood, however as soon we address the problem, better results will be obtained.

Thanks for reading 🙂

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Autor: Lorena Álvarez

Psicóloga, activista, trotamundos y una apasionada por la ciencia y las letras.

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