School success requires a level of orderliness and initiative. But for many pupils, finding the needed focus to perform is often challenging.

Problems with executive functions, or executive dysfunction, reflect a child’s capacity for goal-oriented behaviour and capability to follow work routines. These children find it harder to organize tasks compared to their peers.

Supporting pupils experiencing trouble with executive functions is a central part of pedagogical remediation in schools. But identifying the children in need of support can often be challenging.

We interviewed Juha Salmitaival on the more hidden symptoms of executive dysfunction, and how they affect school success.

Challenges in executive functions emerge in everyday settings

The regular school day consists of many recurring tasks. For most, getting through these happens without effort. However, for many children organizing these simple routines is a source of trouble.

“Challenges in executive functions become visible with tasks that require systematic actions. Examples are packing up for the school day or doing homework independently. These are situations where children will experience trouble if taking independent initiative is an obstacle,” explains Salmitaival.

Challenges in school often stay hidden among the quieter kids

Poor executive functions are often associated with hyperactivity and inattentiveness. But this does not give the entire perspective. With an array of possible signs and causes for the challenges among the children, the evaluation should always be done case by case.

“The livelier kids usually get the most attention when evaluating possible learning disorders. The loud and sometimes improper behaviour make them the more obvious choice for the teacher’s attention,” says Salmitaival.

But many of the children experiencing challenges in learning belong in fact to the quieter group of individuals. These pupils are more often left unintentionally outside the executive function support provided by the school.

“Difficulties in learning are underdiagnosed to a higher degree among the more shy kids. These pupils behave nicely and rarely cause trouble at school. So the teachers will not notice their problems with learning to the same degree.”

Tackling challenges in learning should happen as early as possible

Executive dysfunction takes many forms among pupils, but the outcomes are often similar. Failing in school affects the child’s self-esteem, making progress even harder. This creates a vicious cycle with long-term negative impacts on school success and personal development.

“It’s not that children experiencing challenges with executive functions would not try their best. Problems arise when there are too many disturbing factors in their environment. The pupil gets distracted and can not perform according to his capabilities.”

Poor success early on in school affects later stages of development. Feelings of being inadequate will put a strain on the child and can have visible effects during puberty and adulthood as well.

“It is important to tackle the question of executive functions early on. Acknowledging that the kids are individuals and seeing everybody as potential candidates for remedial actions will take us a long way,” concludes Salmitaival.