Executive Function & Behavior Problems in Children

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Understanding, Defining and Assessing Executive Function in Children with Behavior Difficulties Donna Spencer Pitts
November 28, 2010


Executive Function (EF) is an ill-defined psychological construct that has garnered much attention in recent years. Although the theoretical framework that supports executive function research has been discussed since the 1950’s, the interest in understanding executive functions and the resulting research has increased tremendously in the last 10 years. According to Bernstein and Waber (2007), a search of the PsychInfo database, using keywords “executive function” and “children”, yielded 5 articles in 1985, 14 articles in 1995, and 501 articles in 2005.

Despite the recent renewal of interest in this topic, and a general understanding and agreement of the construct among psychologists and neuroscientists, a formal definition has yet to be agreed upon (Jurado & Rosselli, 2007), and only theoretical, rather than operational definitions are referenced in the literature (Hughes & Graham, 2002). Executive function is an umbrella term used to describe a complex set of high-order cognitive processes necessary for interpreting and navigating novel and difficult situations (Hughes & Graham, 2002; Jurado & Rosselli, 2007), planning future actions, problem-solving, self monitoring, mental flexibility and inhibition of well-learn and familiar patterns of behavior (Henry & Bettanay, 2010; Hughes & Graham, 2002; Miyake et al, 2000; Pennington & Ozonoff, 1996).

Understanding executive function and how it relates to both cognitive and behavioral outcomes is essential to the processes of assessment of executive dysfunction and development of supports and interventions for students with behavior disorders. Many situations that are encountered in everyday life, in both adaptive behavior and academic domains, require the use of executive processes (Clark, Prior, & Ginsella, 2002). It is suggested that executive...
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