Understanding Executive Function: The ability to manage oneself successfully

An untidy room
An untidy room

Almost every single blessed morning I have to keep tabs on my nearly nine year old daughter as she prepares for school. She doesn’t have a problem with waking up early (on most days) but what happens between the time of getting up and leaving the house is what really baffles me, because more often than not, I’m yelling every now and again to make sure that she gets her act together so we can leave for school on time –like I’m the one who is going to school! If you try and decipher what could have possibly delayed her, you often cannot come up with a plausible reason. The summation of it all is that she tends to major on the minors (like getting delightfully distracted by a toy or a book or her younger brothers) and therefore delays on the majors (bathing, getting dressed, and eating) resulting in us nearly always having to leave the house in a huff!

Does this phenomenon sound at all a little too familiar?

How about this next situation that I often encounter with my three year old son: When I instruct him to bring something to me, like say, my handbag from my bedroom, he will often set off to do what I’ve asked him to do. And yes, sometimes, he will come with the handbag. But at other times, he will get pre-occupied by something else and forget, necessitating for me to ask him again, before the job gets done.

These two situations I have described above are examples of areas where my children need to develop in executive function. Executive function is a necessary set of cognitive skills that help us to manage and organise our lives successfully. Children, from infancy right up to adolescence, often need help in developing these set of skills (some more than others) in order to progress well at school and in other areas of their lives. If these skills are not harnessed early in life, they will compromise a person’s efficiency and productivity in life.

Executive function elaborated on

Executive function, according to Alyssa Meuwissen, Doctoral candidate for Child Development, University of Minnesota, is a set of skills that allows people to control their behaviour and direct it towards longer-term goals, rather than doing what is automatic or easiest to accomplish. These skills enable people to plan, organize, remember things, prioritize, pay attention and start and complete tasks. They also help people use information and experiences from the past to solve current problems.

Executive function can be likened to an air traffic control system at a busy airport.

‘Some planes  have to land and others have to take off at the same time, but there is only so much room on the ground and in the air,” explain researchers at FrameWorks Institute. Just as an air traffic control system manages the arrivals and departures of many aircrafts on multiple runways, executive function skills allow us to retain and work with information in our brains, focus our attention, filter distractions and switch mental gears where necessary, experts say.

Source: chinaaircontrol.com
Source: chinaaircontrol.com

According to the Developing Child Centre at Harvard University, there are three main components of executive function, that work together and draw upon each other for overall success and these include: working memory, mental/cognitive flexibility and Self/Inhibitory Control.

  • Working Memory – the ability to hold information in mind and use it. It determines our ability to retain and manipulate distinct pieces of information over short periods of time.
  • Cognitive/Mental flexibility – the capacity to switch gears and adjust to changing demands, priorities and perspectives. Mental flexibility helps us to sustain or shift attention in response to different demands or to apply different rules in different settings.
  • Self/Inhibitory control – the ability to master thoughts and impulses so as to resist temptations and distractions and be able to pause and think before acting. This ability enables us to set priorities and resist impulsive actions or responses.

These three work together to help us:

  • Remember the information we need to complete a certain task
  • Filter distractions
  • Resist inappropriate or non-productive impulses
  • Sustain attention during a particular activity
  • Set goals and plan ways to meet them, to assess our progress along the way, and adjust the plan if/when necessary

If a child has issues with executive functioning they find it difficult to:

  • Keep track of time
  • Make plans
  • Make sure work is finished on time
  • Multitask
  • Apply previously learned information to solve problems
  • Analyze ideas
  • Look for help or more information when it is needed

Children are not born with executive function and self-regulation skills but they are born with the potential to develop these skills. According to researchers, executive function deficits are increasingly becoming linked to ADHD, the primarily inattentive type, but they are generally not considered a disability/disorder on their own. Executive function skills therefore can and need to be developed from infancy right up to adolescence as they are critical in determining your child’s overall success in school and after. There are certain age-appropriate activities that can help children develop naturally in executive function. These activities are outlined in greater detail in an article of ours entitled: Activities that develop executive function from infancy to adolescence. For children who have serious executive function deficits, however, professional help may need to be sort.

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