Executive functions refer to cognitive processes that are necessary for the cognitive control of behavior to successfully attain chosen goals. We all use these executive functions to plan, organize and complete tasks. Problems with executive functioning can be seen at any age but tend to be increasingly apparent as children move through the early elementary grades. The demands of completing schoolwork can often trigger signs that there are difficulties in this area.
Types of Executive Function Skills
Below are the principal executive function skills, as outlined by parent advocate, former teacher and author Amanda Morin. Individuals with executive functioning issues may struggle with one or more of these skills.
- Impulse control – The ability to think before acting
- Emotional control – Keeping feelings in check
- Flexible thinking – Being able to adjust to the unexpected
- Working memory – Keeping key information in mind
- Self-monitoring – Self evaluation
- Planning and prioritizing – Deciding on a goal and a plan to meet it
- Task initiation -Taking action to get started on a task
- Organization – Keeping track of things physically and mentally
InBrief: Executive Function: Skills for Life and Learning
Warning Signs of Executive Functioning Disorder
Problems with executive function can run in families, and can have serious consequences for both adults and children. You may notice them when your child starts going to school. They can hurt the ability to start and finish schoolwork.
WedMD identifies some of the warning signs that a child may be having problems with executive function which include trouble with:
- Planning projects
- Estimating how much time a project will take to complete
- Telling stories (verbally or in writing)
- Starting activities or tasks
Currently there is no one test to identify problems with executive functioning. Experts typically rely on a variety of tests to measure specific executive functioning skills. However, these tests are not predictive of how well adults or children will do in real life.
Treating problems with executive function early can help children outgrow it. The brain continues to develop well into adulthood, and experiences can shape executive function as the brain grows.
Methods to Manage Executive Functioning Issues
The National Center for Learning Disabilities has outlined a number of strategies to help individuals cope with executive functioning challenges.
- Take step-by-step approaches to work; rely on visual organizational aids.
- Use tools like time organizers, computers or watches with alarms.
- Prepare visual schedules and review them several times a day.
- Ask for written directions with oral instructions whenever possible.
- Plan and structure transition times and shifts in activities.
- Create checklists and “to do” lists, estimating how long tasks will take.
- Break long assignments into chunks and assign time frames for completing each chunk.
- Use visual calendars to keep track of long term assignments, due dates, chores, and activities.
- Use management software such as the Franklin Day Planner, Palm Pilot, or Lotus Organizer.
- Be sure to write the due date on top of each assignment.
Managing space and materials
- Organize work space.
- Minimize clutter.
- Consider having separate work areas with complete sets of supplies for different activities.
- Schedule a weekly time to clean and organize the work space.
- Make a checklist for getting through assignments. For example, a student’s checklist could include such items as: get out pencil and paper; put name on paper; put due date on paper; read directions; etc.
- Meet with a teacher or supervisor on a regular basis to review work; troubleshoot problems.
The Positive News About Executive Functioning Issues
The good news for those challenged with executive functioning problems is that the brain continues to develop new connections as we age. Executive functioning abilities are shaped by both physical changes in the brain and life experiences. Early attention to developing executive functioning skills can help, especially if augmented by direct instruction, frequent reassurance and explicit feedback.