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Masters in Educational Practice: Child and adolescent development 0-19


Cognitive development


What are executive functioning skills and how do these relate to learning?

Executive function (EF) is a complex cognitive construct which has components including planning, problem-solving, working memory, sustained attention, impulse control and decision-making. When looking at the components of EF we can see why they are important considerations in pupil learning. There is much debate over what executive functioning is and whether it is a global concept. However, there has been increasing interest in recent years in this area relating to pupils’ learning and in the field of research. One of the areas of the brain that has been shown to be important for executive functioning is the prefrontal cortex.  


Watch the following clip as it explains what executive functioning is and also shows where in the brain the area is placed (the prefrontal cortex).

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Executive functioning is involved in handling novel situations outside the domain of some of our ‘automatic’ psychological processes that could be explained by the reproduction of learned schemas or set behaviours.

The executive system helps us block out extraneous ‘noise’ so that we may attend to a task, complete several tasks at one time (multi-tasking) and allows us to adapt to new situations (Burgess et al., 2000). These processes have been mainly associated with the prefrontal cortex (PFC) – the frontal portion of the brain – and can be split into actions that require conscious control (e.g. learning a new skill), those that are automatic (e.g. memory recall) or a combination of both (e.g. riding a bicycle).  

Blakemore & Choudhury (2006) reviewed the histological and imaging studies of adolescent brains which indicate that a peak in PFC activity occurs during early adolescence and that this period of activity has implications for educational and social development of the child.

Morgan and Gardener (2007) describe EF from a multi-intelligences perspective using the analogy ‘hill, skill, will’, where ‘hill’ is the establishment of goals; ‘skill’ is the attainment of the required abilities to achieve that goal and ‘will’ is the determination to persevere until the goal is achieved. These three parameters become more complexly inter-related with each other with age.  

EF development in children, adolescents and young adults focuses primarily on skills as they strive to increase abilities deemed more valuable to society and where goals are set by others.  Later on the focus shifts to the concept of self and control over individuality.


Like other areas of development, a child does not acquire all their executive functioning skills at once – they increase over time. In a study of mainstream primary and secondary school children in Australia, Anderson et al (2001) showed that within a typically developing population different domains of executive functioning took different developmental trajectories.  

Improvement was observed on tasks which required selective attention ability, working memory and problem-solving whereas planning/strategic behaviour may have been cemented in earlier life.  

EF development begins during the early years with inhibitory control.

Figure 2: Description of how EF development occurs over time

(Preschool program improves cognitive control. Diamond, A., Barnett, W. S., Thomas, J & Munro, S. Science. 318: 1387–1388)

How do EF difficulties affect the learner in school and at home?

At the pre-school stage there may be problems running a simple errand such as going upstairs to get their shoes, clearing a cup or brushing their teeth. At the primary school stage there may be problems with tidying the bedroom, queuing to go into class, planning and finishing their homework or a project, writing a story or saving money to buy a present.  


Consider the following.

  1. How do you go about recognising which learners are having difficulties with executive functioning and what tools could you use to do this?
  2. What may you notice in the classroom with these learners? 
  3. With regard to the scaffolding techniques described earlier in the topic – what techniques could you use to assist a learner?
  4. How could you work with home to provide some consistent approaches?
  5. When do you think learners are more likely to be challenged by EF difficulties?
  6. Reflect on whether you have ever ‘misinterpreted’ these types of difficulties as ‘can’t be bothered’ or ‘not trying hard enough’?

At the secondary school stage difficulties with EF may cause problems with navigating around school, completing assignments on time, doing revision or examinations, starting a project, meeting deadlines, planning after-school activities, responding to feedback from school work, considering longer-term goals, choosing not to do dangerous behaviours and deciding what to wear.

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