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

Introduction

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 functions support cognitive processes that allow problem solving and planning for new and future goals and activities, as well as behavioral regulation processes that support emotional control, set shifting and inhibition (Henry & Bettanay, 2010; Jurado & Rosselli, 2007). Deficits in these areas are thought to play a primary role in developmental disorders, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism, and Oppositional Defiant Disorders/Conduct Disorders (Clark et al, 2002; Hughes & Graham, 2002; Martel, Nikolas, & Nigg, 2007). Thus a deeper understanding of executive function is paramount to developing assessment tools and interventions that will enable these children to lead purposeful, fulfilling and independent lives.

This review of the literature will focus on the importance of continued research to better understand, define and assess executive functioning. It will look at the history of EF research, progress made in the understanding of EF, and the importance of this process in understanding and assessing executive functions. The development of EF through childhood and adolescence will be considered when discussing assessment programs and both limitations and implications for further research will be discussed.

Executive Function Research

The groundwork for current research was laid in the 1950’s when Donald Broadbent, a British psychologist, introduced the theory that there is a distinction between automatic and controlled cognitive processes. This idea was expanded by the introduction of the concept of selective attention in 1977 (Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1968; Hughes & Graham, 2002; Shiffrin & Schneider, 1977). In 1975, U.S. psychologist Michael Posner brought attention to the concept of control vs. automation of cognitive processes (Posner & Snyder, 2004). Also in the 1970’s British psychologist Alan Baddeley argued for the existence of a centralized cognitive control system, which he termed the “central executive” (Baddeley,...
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