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Executive Function: What is it and why is it important for academic achievement?

student-studyingExecutive function is a domain of cognitive ability that is comprised of a number of distinct yet related skills, including working memory, abstract planning, sustained attention, and mental flexibility.  The executive function system allows for the regulation, control, and management of learning.  As such, it is very important for strong academic performance and the development of numerous academic abilities.

Children and adolescents with significant attention problems, including Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), often have trouble not only with tasks requiring sustained concentration, but also with those requiring other aspects of executive function, including working memory.  When first learning to read, a child must focus his or her attention long enough to sequence the order of sounds correctly.  The child must hold in mind the sounds of a word just read, as he or she sounds out (or reads) a subsequent word.  Similarly, when a student is learning to think about arithmetic concepts, mental flexibility and the correct sequencing of abstract operations are important for understanding calculations and the relations among quantities.  Holding information in mind while processing other, related information, is the essence of working memory.  

Executive function skills also help a student to keep track of his or her daily life and academic tasks.  Good organization and planning are often critical to academic success.   Remembering where one placed one’s notebook, or whether a textbook was already placed in a backpack, are important working memory and monitoring skills for accomplishing homework and other school projects.

Emotional health has been found to have a big impact on tasks requiring executive function.  Significant anxiety, for example, is associated with poorer performance on tasks that require a person to shift his or her attention to relevant information.  Depression can also exacerbate poor attention skills, abstract reasoning abilities, and planning skills, especially for those who are already struggling with neurological or other psychiatric disorders.  Depression may impair one’s ability to be mentally flexible.

If working memory is compromised in a student who is struggling with significant anxiety or depression, then his or her academic performance is likely to suffer.  Treating anxiety and depression is therefore important not only for the student’s emotional well-being, but also for his or her optimal performance in school.  

At the Summit Counseling Center, we provide screening assessments for attention and emotional problems, as well as comprehensive assessments of executive function and other cognitive abilities that can impact school performance.  Through these psycho-educational evaluations, we identify how students may achieve their full potential.  Please contact psychologist Rebecca L. Marshall, Ph.D., at the Summit Counseling Center (678-893-5300) for more information.

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