Recently an educator without a special education background asked me the difference between independent functioning and executive functions. I thought that maybe more people get confused by the terms since they sound so similar.
Independent Functioning “Independent” refers to what a student can do without a teacher’s prompts and cues. “Functioning” means doing work and on task behavior in the school environment, or even beyond. Individual education programs (IEPs) contain goals where teacher support is integral to a student meeting a benchmark. Getting students to do something themselves is part of the rationale for special education: give them the support only until they need it and then phase it out.
Independent Functioning often has its own goal category right along with Language Arts and Mathematics. Some areas that may need an independent functioning goal include self-care, safety, motor, sensory, and transitional skills. An example of an independent functioning goal would be, “John will remember his math book and pencil prior to transitioning out of the classroom for math 4/5 days of the week without an adult prompt.” Benchmarks for that goal could start with an adult prompt and it could be faded out systematically to arrive that that yearly goal.
Speech pathologists do not typically write goals related to independent functioning directly; however, goals are written to incorporate a lot support from the speech path at first and then that support is faded away by diminishing models, cues, and prompting.
Executive Functions While independent is easily defined, the word “executive” is a little more vague. It refers to a set of abilities related to an over-arching ability to manage oneself. Core executive functions include memory, attention, inhibition, and organization. When individuals lack those skills, they struggle to learn in school and in life, too.
Normally I hear the term “executive function” in meetings discussing how a student is performing in the classroom. Teachers usually end up referring students for additional support when they struggle with core executive functions. Speech pathologists can comment on what they see in relation to a student’s executive functions, but speech pathologists do not diagnose deficits in memory, attention, inhibition, and organization. The closest that speech pathologists get is describing a student’s ability to organize the grammar and syntax.
I find the study of executive functions to be fascinating. I conceptualize them as higher order thinking skills. Some kids start school with those skills, while others do not. I find that most students can be taught strategies to improve those skills. While it’s only when other students mature, that those skills fall into line. If you have serious concerns about your child’s executive functioning, talk to your child’s doctor and consider seeing a specialist like a psychologist or a neuropsychologist.