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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Doing what you are told

One day, in a state of complete exhaustion, I got up to complete my final routine before crawling into bed. In my head I planned to do as follows:
Put cheese in fridge
Put rice crackers in cupboard
Clean teeth
Crawl into bed

As I discovered when I next was looking for my favourite snack, what I actually did was:
Put cheese and rice crackers in fridge
Clean teeth
Crawl into bed

This is an example of cognitive planning going wrong… and an illustration of how executive function can be affected by fatigue. Children whose executive functioning has been affected by factors such as fatigue, anxiety, ADHD or other factors/disorders may find it hard to carry out a sequence of steps even if they do remember the main points of what they have been told.

Doing what you are told

To follow instructions we need to be able to identify the important items, plan and organise the information so we can follow-through with the instructions. Then, finally, we need to be able to concentrate and monitor our actions (ie. I should have realised that the rice crackers really didn’t belong in the fridge). All this is managed by something we call executive functioning (Hagemann, Hay and Levy, 2002).

Executive Function (Hagemann, Hay and Levy, 2002):

Executive function is part of the working memory system. It is a cognitive function that helps us helps us decide what to remember, and what to discard. It helps us put the information in the right order. And it helps us stay on track.

So if a teacher says, “Well, kids, now it’s time to pack up. I want you to put your pencils in your pencil-tin, your books in your tote tray and then come and sit on the floor ready to have a story.”

A student whose “executive function” is working well might have a thought process that goes something like this… “pencils away, book in tote, sit on the mat”. They will then do this in the required order, and be sitting quietly at the front of the room ready for the teacher.

A student whose executive functioning is not operating in the same way, you may find they carry their books and pencils with them to the mat, or they get out their tote tray and put it on their desk. Alternately, they could get distracted half way through and need multiple reminders to get back on track because they aren’t monitoring their own behaviour.

For other children it may just be that they take much longer to work through the process, having to work hard at remembering each step.

Executive functioning is identified as one of the key functions that is affected in children with attention deficit disorders like ADD and ADHD. This means that the children often act impulsively, without thinking about the instructions or consequences of their actions. It also contributes to the fact that they prioritise what’s going on outside the window rather than listening to the instructions you are giving (which, of course, links back to the difficulties with paying attention).

So this is just one more thing to consider when we give instructions….

Next time I am going to post a letter from a parent who has a child with ADD. It provides some great insight. If you want to contribute a similar letter, please email it to me at

I hope this blog is helpful to you. If it is, make sure you vote on the poll on the left. I also look forward to your questions and suggestions for future topics.

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Hagemann, E., Hay, D.A., and Levy, F. (2002). Cognitive Aspects and Learning. In S. Sandberg (Ed), Hyperactivity and Attention Disorders of Childhood, p214-241. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

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