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Piloting the Human Brain: A Flight through Executive Functioning

Executive Function Disorder in Children

Imagine you’re a pilot sitting in the cockpit of a Boeing 737 airplane. You’re surrounded by hundreds of controls and devices. Not only do you have to know where all switches are located, you also need to understand what they do and how to use them.

An airplane’s systems – including the engine, fuel, hydraulics, electrical, oxygen, navigation and radios – run cohesively but only under your control. As a pilot, you have to be aware of all the systems and know how to use them to plan flights, factor in elements like weather, and quickly troubleshoot problems that arise.

Different planes have different flight decks, but all have a common denominator: pilots. The same is true for the human brain. Your brain is the cockpit of your body and your prefrontal lobe is the pilot.

If a pilot doesn’t know what all the switches in the cockpit do, he or she will experience difficulties flying the plane. Similarly, a person with cognitive weaknesses in his or her prefrontal lobe can struggle with executive functions like impulse and emotional control, flexible thinking, working memory, self-monitoring, planning and prioritizing, task initiation and organization.

Systems Down – Signs of Executive Function Disorder          

While “executive function issues” are not classified as a specific learning disability (like reading, math and written expression disabilities), individuals diagnosed with learning disabilities often have them. This is due to the fact that 30 per cent of those diagnosed with learning disabilities also have attention disorders such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Children with executive function problems often have trouble with planning, making decisions, completing homework, organizing projects and finishing tasks assigned by teachers, sustaining attention, suppressing impulses, preventing inappropriate responses, reflecting on past behavior to consider future outcomes, and delaying immediate gratification, according to Howard Eaton, the founder and director of Eaton Arrowsmith.
Eaton Pull Quote

“Executive function issues can cause wide-ranging difficulties at school and home,” Eaton said. “These kids might not remember to bring their homework from the kitchen table to school or might forget to get it out of their backpacks altogether. They are also known to drift off in class.”

Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, founder of the Arrowsmith Program, also explains executive function issues through what is known as the “Stanford Marshmallow Experiment”.

The study involved presenting four to six-year-olds with a marshmallow. The children were told they could eat the marshmallow right away or wait 15 minutes and receive a second marshmallow. Sixteen years later, psychologists performed a follow-up experiment on the same individuals. The kids who waited for the second marshmallow were found to have higher Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores as adults.

In her book, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain, Arrowsmith says, “What was actually being measured in this simple experiment was what underlies the ability to delay gratification: the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, which is critically important to success in life.”

 While researchers know individuals with ADHD and dyslexia often have executive functioning issues, they have yet to pinpoint the exact cause of specific cognitive weaknesses in the prefrontal cortex. But genes and heredity, as well as brain differences caused by accidents and illness, can play a role.

Systems Up and Running – Supporting Children with Executive Function Disorder

According to Eaton, students with executive functioning issues often come to EA with ADHD diagnoses. Some of them are on medication to help boost concentration and suppress hyperactive behavior, but the medication is often not helping them succeed in school.

Executive Functioning IssuesEach child is given an Arrowsmith Assessment when starting at EA to determine which cognitive exercises should be implemented to improve executive functioning and which levels to work on first. These assessments act as baselines to help measure progress over 10 months of intervention.

In students diagnosed with ADHD, the Arrowsmith Assessment often shows issues in the prefrontal cortex, according to Eaton.

“We see difficulty with prefrontal engagement in students with ADHD diagnoses,” he said. “But about 70 per cent of these students can come off their medications after completing individualized programs at EA.”

The reason for this is simple: the Arrowsmith Program helps students work towards strengthening weaknesses in the prefrontal cortex that make executive functions challenging.

“A lot of kids are being medicated that don’t need to be medicated,” Eaton said.

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