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Noticing Signs of Executive Function Difficulties in the Classroom

Teachers know there’s more to their job than following the curriculum and hoping students follow along — they need to be able to identify when a student is struggling, such as with executive function difficulties, and do everything they can to help them improve.

In every classroom there are students who show loads of potential, but are held back by their inability to stay focused or motivated. Sometimes it’s obvious, while other times it isn’t, and we oftentimes see those student slip through the cracks.

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Many of these challenges stem from executive function difficulties, and recognizing the problem during early childhood is crucial for preventing the negative effects typically seen in later childhood and beyond. Without early diagnosis and treatment, a child can suffer through adulthood without ever knowing the root of the problem. Here are some common warning signs of executive function deficits to be aware of:

Difficulty Changing Tasks

In a classroom, frequent task switching is unavoidable. Whether a student is transitioning from a reading assignment to a written test, or shifting from multiplication to division, changing gears is a reality of daily classroom life. Children with executive function difficulties may perform well on a certain task, but as soon as they are required to shift their attention elsewhere, they lose focus. If changes seem to shake up your student, it may be time to test for executive function problems.

Disorganization

A student’s tendency to be messy or disorganized may be more than just a personality trait; it could be a sign of a deeper underlying issue. Executive function deficiencies affect a person’s ability to stay organized, even if they have a system in place to keep things in order. Keep an eye out for students who have overflowing folders, stuffed lockers, and papers thrown about their desks. These students often bring home the wrong textbooks or coursework, which they might be embarrassed to admit. It might seem like they are just lazy, but don’t be afraid to ask questions about how much of the disorganization feels out of their control – you could uncover the help they need.

Discomfort with Novelty

There are many things in a child’s day that are easy for them to anticipate: breakfast in the morning, recess in the middle of the day, and the bus ride home at the end. However, not all parts of their day are as predictable, and that’s when executive function skills are most needed. If a child always gets a cookie in his lunchbox on Fridays, and his parents forget one week, his entire day could be thrown off and he might have a tantrum. Tantrums are a common reaction to unexpected events for students with executive function problems, because they get stuck on ideas and dislike changes from the norm. When a routine changes, you can learn about the way a child is functioning by observing their reaction.

Missing Main Points

Some students have problems identifying the main points of sentences and instead will focus on small details. If you’re ever having a conversation with a child who can’t seem to let go of something irrelevant you mentioned, they may have a problem with their executive function skills. This issue becomes especially apparent when the student tries to make sense of written content. Reading comprehension skills and executive function are correlated, and it is difficult for some students to take away important points from a book or paper. Ask your students what they think the takeaways are from books and articles to discover their thought processes.

There are likely to be times during your teaching career that make you wonder not just what your students know, but how they think. When certain children seem to operate differently from others in class, it might be time to implement a simple test to measure their executive function skills. Our MEFS App™ early learning and school readiness assessment tool gives educators the ability to identify students with executive function difficulties, so they can implement the proper guidance. Help bridge the gap for every student.

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