In the Part 1, we looked at the origins of the executive functions as a concept. We saw how the idea was born from the desire to investigate and understand the differences between a person’s behavior before they had suffered a brain-damaging accident and after the brain-damaging accident.
Now we want to know how this model has developed and what is included in it. That’s the subject of this post.
Over the years, many researchers in the field of psychology (neuropsychology) have been investigating and developing this concept of ‘Executive Functions’ and have proposed many different models. Today, many measures of executive functioning still exist, but there is no single standard Executive Functions Model. When any model is referenced, it is usually a particular variation of a particular individual or group’s work in context with the specific discipline of the researcher(s).
Thomas Brown is one such researcher and is said to have developed a model from over 25 years of clinical interviews and research with children, adolescents and adults who have ADD/ADHD.
Brown identifies six clusters of cognitive functions that constitute a way of conceptualizing executive functions.
Cluster 1) Activation: Organizing, Prioritizing and Getting Started on Tasks
A student with deficits in this area of executive functioning has difficulty getting school materials organized, distinguishing between relevant and non-relevant information, anticipating and planning for future events, estimating the time needed to complete tasks, and struggles to simply get started on a task.
Cluster 2) Focus: Focusing, Maintaining and Shifting Attention
A student who is easily distracted misses important information provided in class. He is distracted not only by things around him in the classroom but also by his own thoughts. He has difficulty shifting attention when necessary and can get stuck on a thought, persevering only on that topic.
Cluster 3) Effort: Regulating Alertness, Sustaining Effort, Processing Speed
A student who has a hard time regulating alertness may become drowsy when he has to sit still and be quiet in order to listen to a lecture or read material that isn’t very interesting and stimulating. It is not that he is overtired, rather he simply can’t sustain his alertness unless he is actively engaged. In addition, the speed at which a student takes in and understands information can affect school performance. Some students with ADHD process information very slowly, while others may have trouble slowing down enough to process information accurately.
Cluster 4) Emotion: Managing Frustrations and Regulating Emotions
A student with impairments in this area of executive functioning may have a very low tolerance for frustration and be extremely sensitive to criticism. Difficult emotions can quickly become overwhelming and emotional reactions may be very intense.
Cluster 5) Memory: Using Working Memory and Accessing Recall
Working memory is a “temporary storage system” in the brain that holds several facts or thoughts in mind while solving a problem or performing a task. Working memory helps an individual hold information long enough to use it in the short term, focus on a task and remember what to do next. If a student has impairments in working memory, he may have trouble remembering and following teacher directions, memorizing and recalling math facts or spelling words, computing problems in his head or retrieving information from memory when he needs it.
Cluster 6) Action: Monitoring and Self-Regulating Action
Individuals with this impairment often seem to have deficits in the ability to regulate their behavior, which can significantly impede social relationships. If a student has difficulty inhibiting behavior he may react impulsively without thought to the context of the situation, or he may over-focus on the reactions of others by becoming too inhibited and withdrawn in interactions.
As things stand, it appears that few have noticed that the Executive Functions model tends to focus on post base-line variation in human response to environmental stimulation while ignoring important differences in how such stimulation may initially be experienced by the individual.
We’ll look at this model more closely and reveal a possible distortion or two in the next post. 🙂