The British Association of Teachers of the Deaf
Promoting Excellence in Deaf Education

Executive Function in deaf children

Tanya Denmark, Gary Morgan, Chloë Marshall, Nicola Botting

In March a new three-year project began looking at Executive Function abilities in deaf children at the Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre (DCAL) at University College London.

Executive Function is a broad term which covers many cognitive processes such as planning, working memory, attention, problem-solving and many more. Children use Executive Functions in the classroom every day at school in many ways, for example:

  • when switching from one lesson such as English to the next eg Maths
  • when they are given independent work to do they use it to plan which task they will do first and how long they will spend on each task
  • when concentrating in the classroom and learning how to ignore distracting information
  • remembering new information they are taught from one lesson and applying it in the next lesson, for example when learning how to do fractions in maths
  • coming up with new ideas when asked by the teacher.

Children with Executive Function problems may find it hard to switch from one lesson to the next, may not be able to manage their time on different tasks and may take longer than other children. They may find it difficult to concentrate and be disruptive. They tend to forget information that is learnt and they lack motivation to do tasks or work on their own.

Executive Function develops over childhood, and problems with Executive Function can be seen at any age but they become more noticeable during the school years. Executive Functions are not only important for school success, they also lead to good behaviour and emotional wellbeing and they have important effects on adult life. Research has demonstrated that adults with Executive Function difficulties have more mental health problems, social problems and higher levels of criminal activity and unemployment.

Language and Executive Function

Research has demonstrated that language is important for Executive Function skills. Children use language to talk to themselves when doing tasks to help them remember and plan information and avoid distracting information.

Children with language impairments often perform poorly on Executive Function tasks, possibly because they have more difficulty using language to help them when planning and problem solving. As many deaf children experience language delay it is possible that they may have difficulty with Executive Function tasks.

The aim of this project is to look at the relationship between language and Executive Function skills in deaf children. Many tasks of Executive Function are English or sound based, which would put deaf children at a disadvantage. We are using a series of visual tasks with no English or language in them, which are suitable for assessing deaf children.

Who will we be including in the study?

Deaf signing children, deaf oral children (with no other additional diagnoses other than deafness) and hearing children aged between 6 and 11 years.

We are looking at these groups of children so we can compare different language backgrounds and skills and see how they relate to Executive Function skills.

What will each child do?

We will see each child twice for approximately an hour and a half in total; they will be given some short language (two) and Executive Function assessments (five). The tasks are all no longer than 10 minutes each and are child-friendly and fun to do. Children will be offered breaks within sessions. We also have a background questionnaire that we would like parents to complete. Parents will be given vouchers to thank them for their time in completing any forms. Book vouchers will be given to the children’s schools to thank the children for their participation.

We would like to follow up a small group of children approximately one or two years later with a training study and assessments to see how their language and Executive Function skills have developed.

All studies are approved for ethics and safety. Children’s details will be kept confidential.

Where does the study take place?

We can either visit children in school or at home depending on whichever is most convenient.

We do hope you will support this exciting new research project and encourage parents and children to take part.