What is Executive Function?
Executive function refers to a set of mental skills that can be described as the “guidance system” of the brain. It is responsible for three main skill areas: self-control, working memory, and flexible thinking. These skill areas manage abilities such as paying attention, managing emotions, starting and completing tasks, and organizing and planning. While all of these skills fall under the umbrella term of “executive function skills,” they don’t necessarily develop linearly. Each of these skills has varying intervals of growth and can respond differently to different types of intervention. Typically, executive functioning skills begin to appear during early childhood and continue to develop into the mid-20s. However, it is important to note that all children do not develop at the same rate, and a child who seems to be behind their peers in executive function skills is not necessarily abnormal.
Why are Executive Functions Skills So Important?
Executive functions are important because we use these skills every day to manage work, learning, and daily life responsibilities. These skills are what help us function as adults; so when someone is struggling with executive functioning, it will usually impact them at school, at home, and in all facets of their life.
Typically, difficulties with executive function skills can appear to be similar to signs of ADHD, which is also considered an executive function disorder; but struggling with executive functions can be indicative of multiple different learning disorders, not just ADHD. Even so, having trouble with executive function isn’t usually considered a learning disability in itself. Typical signs of struggling with executive functions can appear as having trouble starting or completing tasks, becoming overly emotional or fixating on certain emotions or ideas, having trouble managing time, having short-term memory issues, and emotional distress when rules or routines change.
Possible Causes of Executive Function Difficulties
Two main factors have been shown by studies to be the main causes of challenges with executive function. The first factor is differences in brain development. People who have trouble with executive function abilities have been reported to have slower development in the prefrontal cortex, thalamus, and basal ganglia. Both working memory and emotional control are managed by these areas of the brain, which means that slower development in those regions can negatively impact one’s executive function skills. The second factor is genetics. Oftentimes, family members of those who struggle with executive function also struggle. It’s not always the case that people with disabilities have executive function issues. But children with dyslexia (a hereditary learning disorder), for instance, frequently struggle with executive function skills, as well.
Additionally, studies have shown that outside challenges can cause delays in the development of executive function skills in children. For example, chronic stress and anxiety (often due to family issues, health issues, or issues at school), are the biggest threat to healthy executive function development. Fortunately, certain methods and forms of intervention have been studied to help shortcut delays and assist children in successfully learning these skills earlier. The educators at Educate. Radiate. Elevate. utilize these methods with their students, and we would like to share some of them with you in this article.
Executive Function “Shortcuts”
The last several years have seen a dramatic rise in the number of interventions aimed at improving children’s executive functioning, although the benefits will vary according to the child’s cognitive abilities (such as language, memory, or intellectual functioning), family functioning, and underlying medical or psychological issues. There are therapies that use computerized programs, such as Cogmed cognitive training. These programs utilize kid-friendly strategies in 5 to 15-week courses to teach and train particular executive functions, such as working memory and impulse control.
Additionally, there is strong evidence that certain school curriculums improve executive function in young children. These lessons teach kids how to take turns, listen actively, and come up with original solutions to problems, as well as self-control and socio-emotional abilities. While the common teaching methods utilized (i.e. dramatic play and cooperative learning) take place under the supervision of educational professionals, there are strategies that you can also do at home to improve your children’s executive function development.
Executive Function Strategies
Executive function strategies are not a one size fits all, just as executive functioning is not only about one skill. A framework for using these strategies is a must. Our recommendation at E.R.E. is to follow this framework to maximize results for your children, remembering to practice daily, reward success, and use positive reinforcement. Executive function coaching is best applied in the context of daily life and not just in academics. The proper use of training executive function strategies can create positive feedback loops in your child’s life, building a sense of confidence, pride, and self-efficacy, while simultaneously improving academic and social success.
Here are five strategies to help maximize your children’s executive function development:
Demonstrate by example.
Teach your children the value of organization by being organized yourself. Show how a shopping list provides guidance for a trip to the grocery store, for example. If you use planners or apps on your smartphone to stay organized, explain to your children how they function for you. Help your kids understand that organization is a skill that many people, even adults, struggle to acquire. Be honest about your own organizational challenges.
Show your children how to use checklists and calendars/planners, and how these tools can be beneficial to them. Use a 15-minute daily planner to list assignments, prioritize them, and then plan out the day. Allow students to choose the order of priority based on whatever criteria they want. For tangible planners, we recommend planners such as The Passion Planner, The Bullet Proof Planner, or the Inamio Planner. Online planning resources can also be just as helpful with additional alert tools, such as Kidgy, Todist, and DayViewer.
Establish reliable routines.
To get through the day, we all have routines and habits. Similarly, your children will benefit by being aware of what to anticipate during an average day and week. Set a daily routine they can stick to. A good daily routine should include time for homework, study breaks, and any other activities. Start homework at the same time every day. Remind them to self-check from time to time to see whether they are doing the things they planned. Giving your kids a visual reminder of the plan can be extremely beneficial to them, too. One way of incorporating this into your children’s life is to have them record their homework and assignments in a calendar each day. This will teach them organizational skills and also help them keep up with deadlines.
Practice using proactive stress management techniques. This can be as simple as having your children take a quick quiet break or switch to a different task if they become overwhelmed. It has been shown that movement-based activities can help children release stress and help them focus, especially if they struggle with hyperactivity. When full-body movement is not an option, sensory toys can be beneficial. Some of the most popular sensory toys are fidget spinners, stress balls, pop-its, and infinity cubes. For a longer movement break, meditation and exercise videos for your children to follow along with, such as GoNoodle, are an easy solution.
Create an organized workspace.
Assist children with establishing a quiet study area that is clean, well-organized, and free of distractions. Consider turning off notifications on electronics or using a digital detox tool, such as the StayFocusd Chrome plugin, which restricts the amount of time spent on time-wasting websites. As for the workspace itself, make sure it is de-cluttered, and that all necessary materials are laid out in a way that they are visible, but don’t take up unnecessary space. Be sure to help your children organize notes so they are easy to find. That is, teach them to put dates on everything, use matching color-coded or labeled tabs/folders, and the like.
This article gives you some ideas on the importance of executive function skills, as well as some strategies that can hopefully assist both your children (and even you!) in everyday life. Here at E.R.E., our purpose is to help all students to get the best quality of education possible, despite any challenges. Support our mission by donating today! If you found this blog helpful and want more resources, be sure to check out our other articles such as The Advantages of Online Learning Resources and The Four Learning Styles.