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Executive Functioning and Learning Challenges

For the last twenty years, discussion on learning difficulties have increasingly centered on the importance of executive functioning. Understanding the substance and contours of what is meant by executive functioning is often unclear, and its relationship to individuals with learning issues is often implied, but not well articulated or understood.

Simply put, executive functioning refers to the activities of the frontal lobe involving such tasks as decision making, planning on both a verbal and perceptual level, initiation and generation capacities, accessing information, inhibiting responses, and simultaneous processing of information. This of course is just sampling of the kind of complex and difficult to describe activities that we all engage in on a daily basis. Individuals with ADHD and learning challenges often have difficulties with executive functioning, in that they struggle with organizing and planning activities, screening out distractions, prioritizing and finishing tasks, as well as being able to access and remember information related to a task they are intending to perform.

In evaluating children, adolescents and adults who suffer from executive functioning difficulties, involves a thorough examination of a person’s history, but also administering tests that focus on the ability to perform a wide variety of tasks involving these skills. For example the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test is often used to evaluate the ability to switch cognitive sets and show mental flexibility, as this card matching task involves individuals’ making choices in an ambiguous and unstructured situation.

In addition, the Controlled Oral Word Association Test (FAS test) is another executive functioning exercise in which the examinee is asked to generate as many words as they can in a one minute span of time for the letters F, A, and S. Individuals with learning and attentional impairments often show a significant difficulty in terms of generating words starting with these letters, while also exhibiting strong vocabulary abilities. This paradox can be explained by noting that accessing or searching for information is often impaired in ADHD/LD populations, while if the examinee is asked to define a particular word, this does not involve the employment of that search function to a comparable degree.

The Trail Making Test is another executive functioning task that involves the ability to connect a series of letters and numbers scattered throughout a page in an alternating and sequential order. This involves the ability to process two sets of data simultaneously, as well as sequence that information. Again, children, adolescents and adults with ADHD often have trouble performing this task, as it requires the kind of multi-tasking higher level functioning that is often difficult for these individuals.

When the results of these executive functioning tests are discussed along with the findings from the intellectual functioning and academic achievement testing, it often is clear that executive functioning is impaired. However, being able to synthesize and glean useful information about an individual’s strengths, and how to target and remediate weaknesses, is the sine qua non of  valuable testing, as this actualizes learning potential.

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