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The Impact of Executive Function Skills on Literacy Learning: An Introduction

How do executive function skills impact literacy learning? In this new series, we’ll explore the “Big Ten” executive function skills—including Task Initiation, Response Inhibition, Focus, Time Management, Working Memory, Flexibility, Self-Regulation, Emotional Self-Control, Task Completion, and Organization—and investigate how students’ difficulties with these skills impact their literacy learning. The series will also discuss specific supports that can assist teachers and students with executive function strategies, using examples from our curricula. 

“No matter what I try, this student just doesn’t seem to care.” 

“That student is so forgetful.” 

“My students are so inconsistent.” 

“Those students always seem lost.” 

Understanding Executive Functions 

Children with executive function challenges are often the subject of these comments by teachers. Executive functions are defined as “the cognitive processes necessary to think, manage oneself, evaluate and solve problems, and achieve goals” (Branstetter, 2014). 

Executive function skills can be considered a “domain of neurocognitive competence” (Denckla, M.B. (1994) that sets the stage for learning, academic achievement, and flexible behavioral functioning (Jacobson, L.A., Carey, L.B. (2020). The “Big Ten” executive function skills that often impact children in school settings include: Task Initiation, Response Inhibition, Focus, Time Management, Working Memory, Flexibility, Self-Regulation, Emotional Self-Control, Task Completion, and Organization (Branstetter, 2014).

“If the brain is the engine of learning and self-regulation, executive functioning is the driver of that engine” 

(Branstetter, 2014).  

Executive Functions in the Classroom

Looking back at the teacher comments at the beginning of this piece, let’s examine how executive function skills may relate. 

  • “No matter what I try, this student just doesn’t seem to care.” 
    • Task Initiation
    • Focus 
    • Emotional Self-Control
  • “That student is so forgetful.” 
    • Focus
    • Working Memory
    • Organization
  • “My students are so inconsistent.” 
    • Task Initiation
    • Response Inhibition
    • Focus
    • Time Management
    • Working Memory
    • Flexibility
    • Emotional Self-Control
  • “Those students always seem lost.” 
    • Focus
    • Working Memory
    • Flexibility
    • Self-Regulation
    • Organization

Raising Educator Awareness of Executive Function Skills

In this blog series, we will explore the “Big Ten” executive function skills and how students’ difficulties with these skills negatively impact their literacy learning. We will also look at specific supports embedded within Collaborative Classroom curricula that assist teachers and students with executive function strategies.

Let me be perfectly clear: I am not a medical professional. First and foremost, I am a mom to two bright, silly, and creative girls. 

I am also an educator. I’m passionate about bringing awareness to the education profession of all the varied ways that children learn to read and write, so that teachers and district leaders are equipped with the knowledge that I lacked as a classroom teacher. I was a teacher for ten years and a literacy coach for five years. During my graduate coursework and my decade of being a classroom teacher in two districts in Pennsylvania, I never learned ways in which to teach children how to read or write. I know that I am not alone, but that does not make this admission any less embarrassing. 

A Personal Reflection

As a mom and a teacher, I was so excited when my oldest daughter entered kindergarten. I couldn’t wait to see all of the excitement in her eyes when she was opened up to the world of reading and writing. 

Five years later, I am still waiting for this moment. We (her teachers and I) started to notice at the end of kindergarten and the beginning of first grade that she was having trouble retaining certain letter sounds and sight words, controlling her frustration with not being able to do so, and staying motivated.  I thought, “No problem. I am a teacher. I can support her at home.”  

Despite collaborative efforts with her teachers and the school supports, my daughter was still not making adequate progress. What was most concerning was her behavior—anger, frustration, and sadness. She did not want to read and she really did not like to write. She was able to control these behaviors at school, but not at home. The behaviors seen at school were not raising her hand to participate, not asking for help, and looking at others’ work and copying their ideas. 

Teachers can support students with executive function strategies

My oldest daughter struggles mightily with most subject areas in school because of these behaviors, these challenges with self-regulation, task initiation, working memory, and flexibility, among other skills.  

She is now entering fifth grade. She enjoys reading now, but often does not comprehend what she is reading. She is able to tell you the big picture, but has difficulties inferring, analyzing information, and recalling important details. She still is reluctant to write and when she does, she either copies things directly from the internet (she has proudly admitted this) or her writing lacks any semblance of sequential order. As a mom and a teacher, I know that I should have been able to support her more!

Reflecting on the Need for Executive Function Strategies in Our Classrooms

Having taught fourth, third, and first grades over my teaching career, I have seen quite a diversity in learning abilities. I have seen children who pick up all instruction with ease. I have seen English learners who have minimal English language proficiency and English learners who are more fluent speakers and readers than native English speakers. I have seen children who are supported and successful with a few scaffolds, and students who continue to struggle with a variety of accommodations. 

Now that I am no longer teaching in the classroom, I wonder about all of the students who sat in front of me, in need of EF strategies to impact their learning experience. Not all students need those extra supports or struggle due to executive functions, but if I had been knowledgeable about what executive functions are and how executive function challenges present in students, I know I could have been a better teacher to many students.

Collaborative Classroom Curricula Supports for Executive Function Skills

In the coming installments of this series, we will hear from Dr. Jennifer McMahon, a district leader in Livonia School District, New York. 

Together, we will share research related to executive functions connected to literacy learning, analyze our personal experiences, and identify the supports that aid student learning related to the following executive skills: 

  • Focus, Working Memory, Time Management, Organization
  • Task Initiation, Flexibility, Task Completion
  • Self-Regulation, Emotional Self-Control, Response Inhibition

I invite you to come along on this journey as Dr. McMahon and I explore how executive functions impact student learning—and how we, as educators, can positively impact students so that they can become successful, joyful, and independent readers, writers, and thinkers.

References

Branstetter, R. (2014). The Everything Parent’s Guide to Children with Executive Functioning Disorder. Adams Media.

Denckla, M.B. (1994) Measurement of executive function. Frames of reference for assessment of learning disabilities. Reid, L.G.(Ed.) Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing. 

Jacobson, L.A., Carey, L.B. (2020) Addressing the Divergence of the UDL Guidelines from the Developmental Neuropsychological View of Executive Function. Learning Designed: CAST & UDL-IRN.