Students With Executive Function Deficits

Some students have challenges staying organized at school.  Unfortunately, some teachers say:

  1. “Stay focused.”
  2. “You could do better.”
  3. “You would do better if…”
  4. “Apply yourself.”
  5. “If you only tried harder.”
  6. “You would do better.”

These statements do not help many children with executive functioning skill deficits.  To the general public, these children are seen as having a lack of self-discipline and/or self-control.

What Are Executive Functions?

Executive functions are the chief operating system of the brain. Unfortunately, there is no one agreed-upon definition for the term “executive functions”, but it is most often used as an umbrella term for sub-skills needed for higher level functioning.

The sub-skills include:

  • Task initiation
  • Sustained attention
  • Working memory
  • Inhibition

Executive functions are related to skills necessary for higher order thinking.  This includes goal-setting, organizing, planning, and problem-solving.  Students who have learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, and autism, also demonstrate executive function deficits.

Deficits in executive function, if not treated, lead to many challenges for special needs students. Longitudinal studies show that many untreated students develop substance abuse. Difficulties with impulsivity can also create difficulties maintaining friendships.

What can a tutor or teacher do to help these students?

Step 1

Define the target behavior with specific, measurable goals.

For example:

  1. Robert will take out his item checklist for each class.
  2. He will put these items into his book bag while checking off each item.
  3. He will put the checklist away on the top shelf of his locker.
  4. He will walk directly to class with his book bag and materials.

Step 2

Provide positive reinforcement.

The most important steps in teaching a new behavior involve reinforcement.  A good teacher or tutor understands which reinforcement will work for each individual student.  Some students might be reinforced by praise, while others might be reinforced by extra opportunities to be on the computer.

Reinforcement may require changing over time, especially for young children with short attention spans. It is important to keep data in each student’s file and adjust the reinforcers as needed.

Task training is best for students with the skills to complete tasks but who require additional motivation.  For example, a high school student might be able to fill out his planner every day but does not need extra motivation or reinforcement to do so.  It is up to the Tutor or Teacher to individualize the plan.

Step 3

Reduce dependency on the process.

The ultimate goal of teaching any new behavior and skill related to executive functioning is to help the student learn to complete the task independently.

The steps for teaching executive function skills vary.


Albert is an eighth-grader, is involved in many school activities including sports and hopes to receive a tennis scholarship.  He is also a volunteer for the homeless and attends many afterschool clubs.

Albert also has trouble staying organized and managing his time.  Over the past semester, he started missing practices, meetings, and assignments, so Albert receives academic tutoring three times a week.

He works with his tutor to develop a plan to manage all of his responsibilities.  Albert eventually becomes independent with the checklist he created with his tutor, but he still needs better time management.

His tutor helped him change the plan to include daily scheduling, specifically indicating the time of day and duration of time Albert will spend on each activity.

After succeeding with his tutor, Albert eventually integrates these time management skills into his school life so that he can achieve these results independently.


Lack of executive function skills may affect all aspects of learning.  Teachers and tutors can use behavioral principles to teach their students skills for success. When target behaviors are clearly defined with appropriate reinforcers and proper procedures are put in place to implement the plan, students can achieve independence.

Teachers and tutors can teach their students how to manage their time and how to independently organize and plan for assignments and tests.  Using behavioral principles, students can learn target behaviors through reinforcement, and once plans are implemented regularly, students can achieve independence.  Eventually, by creating awareness, automaticity, and individualization of the issues that are weak, the student can be successful in life and in school.

Authored by Dr. Deborah Levy