Executive Function Overview

Several Outreach resources highlight aspects of working memory deficits and slow processing speed, how these issues present themselves in the classroom, and what you, as the teacher, can do to help. Before discussing those topics, however, let us first look at an overview of executive function skills.

What is Executive Function?

According to Patricia W. Newhall in her text, Language-Based Learning Series: Executive Function: Foundations for Learning and Teaching, “Executive Function is the brain’s ability to coordinate the cognitive and psychological processes needed to initiate, sustain, monitor and adapt the behaviors and attitudes required to achieve a goal” (2012, p.2).

Dr. Thomas E. Brown defines what he calls the six clusters of executive function: activation, focus, effort, emotion, memory, and action. In addition, he explains executive function in terms of a music conductor: “regardless of their expertise, the musicians need a competent conductor who will select the piece to play, make sure they start playing at the same time and stay on tempo, fade in the strings and then bring in the brass, and manage them as they interpret the music. Without an effective conductor, the symphony will not produce good music” (Brown, 2007 p.23). The same is true of students with poor executive function skills, for when the conductor or the “system” is not appropriately activating and selecting relevant and important functions and tasks, the whole system fails to work properly.

When we think about the impairment of executive function skills, there are generally two models: bottom-up and top-down difficulties.

  • Bottom-up difficulties are more often seen with students who have language processing issues. In this model, their individual skill sets are so impaired that they become often unable to reach the actual goal. For instance, if a student is given the goal of writing a paragraph, their executive function skills do not matter if their language skills impede their ability to produce a written paragraph.
  • On the other hand, top-down difficulties reflect a student’s difficulty with specific executive function skills rather than language-based skills that hinder reaching the goal.

How Does This Connect To Landmark’s Teaching Principles™?

Building executive function skills lends itself well to the sixth teaching principle: Include the Student in the Learning Process. Recognition and awareness of strengths and weaknesses within the six clusters involves the student’s ability to reflect and be metacognitive about his/her abilities. For the full text of the Landmark Teaching Principles™, including “Include the Student in the Learning Process,” click here.

Strategies to Download

Interferences with Executive Function


Explore the use of student questionnaires and classroom strategies.


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