Executive Function

Executive functioning is an umbrella term used to describe many cognitive skills involved in goal oriented behaviour. It includes mental processes that require controlling of thought processes, usually in order to problem solve and achieve a goal as efficiently as possible. Executive functions are a prominent area of difficulty for people with FASD.

People with FASD may have problems in these areas of executive functioning:

  • Planning ("What do I do first, second third...")
  • Problem solving ("What are my options? Which is best?)
  • Monitoring their own thought processes ("I think I did that wrong? I should not say that out loud.")
  • Cognitive Flexibility ("This requires subtraction, this one addition." "Stir the pot on the stove, and then turn the kitchen tap off … then back to the stove.")
  • Rapidly producing responses("nonverbal and verbal fluency" Keeping up with a conversation)
  • Stopping themselves from providing particular responses in a given situation (Applying a "brain brake pedal")
  • Working Memory
  • Use of feedback ("I heard it, and I remember it, but I don't know how to act on it")

Executive function problems increase as a task becomes more complex and more abstract. This means it has more components involved and is less applied (You can't see it or work with it).

Developmental Considerations

Much of this “higher level” thinking or abstract thinking develops in late childhood in typically developing children. But other aspects of executive function continue to develop into adolescence and adulthood. These developments are delayed and/or lacking in individuals with FASD. Executive functioning problems may become more pronounced in adolescence and adulthood as expectations for independence grow.

Prenatal alcohol exposure is associated with abnormalities in the frontal lobe of the brain, which is the area of the brain responsible for many tasks related to executive function. Part of the reason why executive function deficits are more pronounced in adolescence is that the frontal lobe continues to develop during adolescence and during this time, the individual is faced with more behavioural regulation expectations along with greater opportunity to take risks. The inability to properly inhibit responses and learn from consequences may lead to impulsivity and risky behaviour.

The implications of executive functioning deficits are vast. Academic functioning, social functioning, and daily life may all be affected greatly with the right intervention. For example, a child who improves their flexible thinking, problem solving, and planning will likely have a more successful time getting homework done and keeping up in later school years. With improved executive function, an individual might be able to better plan the necessary steps to reach a goal. Appropriate interventions may help a person with FASD change their approach to solving a problem that they had previously failed to solve. With improved executive function comes improved concept formation and conceptual shifting. Therefore, they should be able to more easily transfer learning to different situations to smooth their social functioning and daily life skills.


Understanding Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD): A Comprehensive Guide For Pre-K -8 Educators
FASD overview, teaching and learning strategies for the classroom (Written by Chandra D. Zieff, M.Ed. and Rochelle D. Schwartz-Bloom, Ph.D.)
Executive functioning difficulties: pp. 55-58, 69-73

What Educators Need to Know about FASD: Working Together to Educate Children in Manitoba with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder
FASD overview; common characteristics of FASD; strategies for teachers and parents to assist in meeting the needs of children (from Healthy Child Manitoba)
Executive function: pp. 36-38

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders: Educational Strategies
Teaching strategies from NOFAS and University of South Dakota; contents include environmental modification, functional assessment, communication, executive function, social skills and behaviour. Resource listings in appendices include: general FASD information, teaching, social emotional books for children, social emotional books for young adults, audiovisual resources and websites
Executive Function: Section 5, pp. 53-88

Becoming a Successful Adult Learner Video presentation with handouts
by Lindsay McKerness, Emily Gidden (MSW) and Denise Theunissen (MEd). Profiles the Bow Valley College program in Alberta- transitioning as an adult learner to post secondary schools with supports for learning disabilities. Executive function strategies used in the program are discussed in section 5 (from FASD CMC Alberta)

Cause and Effect/ Impulsivity
Classroom strategies to help students with their unique needs regarding cause and effect and impulsivity (from POPFASD)

How to Respond to FASD Logic (One Track Mind and Concrete, in the Moment Thinking.)
Written by Nathan E. Ory, M.A.- Offers examples of concrete, in-the-moment thinking along with analysis of the behaviour strategies for ways to approach the behaviour (from POPFASD)


The Alert Program
A program for teaching self regulation to children with disabilities

Visual Schedules
Visual schedule resources for individuals with special needs (from Do2Learn). Visual schedules may help individuals with EF difficulties in areas such as planning, initiating activities, and shifting focus.

Teaching Students with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome/Effects: A Resource Guide for Teachers
Website containing information for teachers (along with strategies) about students with FASD, attention problems, cause and effect thinking, social skills, personal skills, memory, language, motor skills, and specific academic subjects (from BC Ministry of Education)