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Executive function with an ABI fact sheet

Executive function in students with an acquired brain injury

How do I know if my student is having difficulties with their executive function?

Executive functioning is an umbrella term for a group of skills that a young person needs to complete goal directed behaviour (such as an assignment or organising an activity for the weekend). These skills include, problem solving, planning/ organisation (see specific tip sheet), being able to monitor and evaluate your own performance, self-starting, thinking flexibly about ideas, and regulating behaviour and emotions (see specific tip sheet).

A student with executive functioning difficulties may find it challenging to set a goal and stay on track toward their goal. They may also find it challenging to work out where to start a task, monitor and evaluate their performance (such as checking the accuracy of their work, or noticing when others are not paying attention to their conversation), move flexibly from one idea or topic of conversation to the next, or manage their feelings or behaviour in order to achieve the task (e.g., may impulsively rush into a task, may become upset over minor problems while completing the task).

What can I do to help my student with their executive function?

  • Where possible, ensure consistency between teachers and support staff when working with your student. This might include, consistency in the approaches to teaching and behaviour management, consistent expectations, and working within the student’s established routines (e.g., a morning routine).
  • When changes need to be made to existing routines, it will be important to prepare the student for these changes (e.g., discuss the change, practice any new tasks/ roles, and provide plenty of positive reinforcement for attempts at engaging in the new routines).
  • The student may benefit from having new concepts and skills introduced to them using the least complex version of an activity (e.g., the simpler version of the recipe in Home Economics, simpler science experiment). Eliminating the non-vital steps from the task may also be helpful.
  • Assist the student in developing an approach to recognising and solving problems on both academic tasks, as well as social-behavioural challenges (this approach can also help the young person monitor their task performance). For instance, ‘goal – obstacle – plan – predict – do – review’ might be a useful approach.
    • Goal: What is the goal? What is it the student is trying to achieve?
    • Obstacle: What is stopping the student from achieving the goal?
    • Plan: What does the student need to do? What do they need help with?
    • Predict: On scale of 1-10 how does the student think they will do? How do you think they will do?
    • Do: Have the student do the task.
    • Review: How did the student go? What worked/ didn’t work? What could we try instead next time?
  • Introduce problems, alternatives, and consequences the students approach to offer opportunities to problem solve and plan approaches in a safe setting.
  • Students might also benefit from being taught self-regulation scripts to help them develop skills in monitoring their own performance, predicting if a task will be challenging, and helping them know when to use their strategies to help.
    • Identify the problem: “Do you think this will be easy or hard?” “Are you ready to start” “Is this a big deal or little deal?”
    • State the reason for the problem: “I wonder if it is hard because….”
    • Offer a solution: “Maybe we could try….”
    • General reassurance/ feedback: “Good work. That was hard to do but you ….”
  • Working out where to start a task is often challenging for students with a brain injury. Brainstorming session could be used to help formulate a plan and to write down information (e.g., what resources the student needs) the student needs to complete the task.
  • It can also be helpful to breakdown complex tasks, into smaller steps.

Contact us

Queensland Paediatric Rehabilitation Service
Queensland Children’s Hospital
Level 6, 501 Stanley Street, South Brisbane 4101
t: 07 3068 2950
t: 07 3068 1111 (general enquiries)
f: 07 3068 3909

In an emergency, always call 000.

If it’s not an emergency but you have any concerns, contact 13 Health (13 43 2584). Qualified staff will give you advice on who to talk to and how quickly you should do it. You can phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Developed by the Queensland Paediatric Rehabilitation Service, Children’s Health Queensland. Updated: October 2017. All information contained in this sheet has been supplied by qualified professionals as a guideline for care only. Seek medical advice, as appropriate, for concerns regarding your child’s health.