What is Executive Functioning?

Executive functioning? What does that mean?

Fri, Aug 9, 2019

What is Executive Functioning?

Executive functioning refers to the higher-level cognitive processes that we use to plan and complete activities in our daily life successfully. We use our executive functioning skills to initiate, direct and regulate ourselves for goal-directed behavior. In order to complete goals in everyday life, children need to be able to utilize their executive functioning skills in order to generate/select goals, plan and use strategies to facilitate goal achievement, and monitor oneself with inhibition and self-regulation skills.

Another integral part of goal-directed behavior is working memory. Working memory is what we use to hold on to information that we can later manipulate. It is like a mental sticky note people use to keep track of information until they need to use it (e.g., an on-going shopping list). Executive function skills are used to make decisions regarding the information held in our working memory so it can be used efficiently in daily life. In order to have adequate working memory, children need to have strong attention and memory skills.

The main cognitive processes involved in executive functioning are: planning, executing, and self-monitoring.

Planning

Planning is a very important skill that children need in order to be successful academically and in daily life. Once a child determines a goal they need to have strong planning skills to reach their goal efficiently. In order to effectively develop a plan, children need to have a vision of the end product to work backwards and develop steps or strategies for accomplishing a particular goal. For example, if you tell your child, “Please clean your room” (e.g., goal), the child needs to think about what a clean room looks like (e.g., toys and clothes are put away in correct places, bed is made, etc.) to develop a goal-directed plan for cleaning his/her room.

Executing

When a child is executing a task they need to be able to attend to that task. Attention is a key factor in a child’s ability to complete tasks in everyday life, such as a homework assignment, or paying attention during a lesson at school. A strategy to help your child with attending and self-monitoring is to identify the distractions which impede execution of a task.

Self-Monitoring

In order for children to accomplish a goal they need to be able to monitor their own behaviors. Inhibition and self-regulation skills are essential in a child’s ability to self-monitor. Inhibition is the ability to control a compulsive behavior that may be affecting the completion of a task. For example, if your child is feeling frustrated and has a tantrum he/she needs to learn ways to calm down and inhibit those behaviors. Self-regulation is a process of taking control of and evaluating one’s own learning and behavior.

Development of Executive Functioning Skills

Executive functioning, unlike other skills that develop in linear stages, continuously develop throughout childhood. The development of these skills is strongly influenced by the experience, teaching, and environmental expectations placed on your child.

Developmental List of Executive Function Skills

3-4 years

  • Runs simple errands (e.g. “Get your shoes from the bedroom.”)
  • Cleans bedroom or playroom with assistance
  • Inhibit behaviors (e.g. “Don’t run into the street.”)

5-7 years

  • Follows 2-3 step directions
  • Cleans bedroom or playroom
  • Performs simple chores independently (may need reminders)
  • Brings papers to and from school
  • Completes homework assignments (20-minute maximum at one time)
  • Decides how to spend money/allowance
  • Inhibition/self-regulation: Does not break the rules; raises hand before speaking in class; keeps hands to themself

8-10 years

  • Runs errands (may involve time delay, such as remembering to do something after school)
  • Cleans bedroom and playroom (may include vacuuming, dusting etc.)
  • Performs chores that take 15-30 minutes
  • Brings books, papers, assignments to and from school
  • Keeps track of belongings when away from home
  • Completes homework assignments (one hour maximum @ one time)
  • Plans simple school projects (e.g. book reports)
  • Keeps track of daily schedule independently
  • Saves money for desired objects, and plans how to earn money for object
  • Inhibition/self-regulation: behaves when teacher is out of classroom; refrains from rude comments, temper tantrums, bad manners

10-12 years

  • Helps out with chores around the home (60-90 minutes maximum)
  • Babysits younger siblings or for pay
  • Uses system for organizing schoolwork, including assignment book, notebooks etc. Follows a complex school schedule involving changing teachers and changing schedules.
  • Plans and carries out long-term projects, including the tasks to accomplish in a reasonable timeline; may require planning multiple large projects simultaneously
  • Plans time with family, friends and school activities while estimating time and incorporating into schedule
  • Inhibit rule breaking in the absence of visible authority

The importance of early identification

It’s not unusual for a child with undiagnosed executive function deficits to achieve all A’s in middle-school or high-school but then fail in the next level of education because he or she becomes overwhelmed without the direct support of parents and tutors. That’s why it’s important for parents and educators to pay early attention to a child’s ability to develop efficient executive functioning skills.

The role of the speech-language pathologist

Not all speech-language pathologists are trained in helping children with executive function challenges. The potential role of the speech-language pathologist with training this area should not be underestimated. For many children with executive function challenges, the speech-language pathologist is the cornerstone of the child’s team. A good speech-language pathologist truly has the potential to make a significant difference in your child’s life.