A middle school girl laments, “I really can’t make decisions. It’s very hard for me to make up my mind.” A ninth grader asks his teacher, “Can I start over?” as he erases all of his work. “I messed up on this problem.” A young adolescent boy explains, “I look at the amount of work I have and I feel overwhelmed. I just don’t know how to get started.”
These statements are common among adolescents with executive functioning difficulties. Executive functioning (EF) refers to the cognitive processes that are necessary to think, manage the self, evaluate and solve problems, and achieve goals (1). Adolescents with executive functioning difficulties often have trouble initiating, completing, or turning in their class assignments; they may struggle to stay engaged in lessons or classroom tasks. At times, these students may be labeled as ‘lazy,’ ‘forgetful,’ or ‘lost’ (2).
When the concept of executive functioning was first examined in the 1970s, it referred to the front of the brain acting as the control center or the “executive” (3) of the brain. Originally, executive functioning was defined as a concept that related closely to selective attention, or the ability to focus on one thing while blocking out distractions. In the past two decades, this notion has evolved. We now think of EF as consisting of numerous cognitive functions that are needed to assist with learning and self-regulation (3). The current research on executive functioning is summarized below.