Executive function skills are the mental processes that enable us to organise and plan, focus attention, remember instructions, understand complex or abstract concepts and use new strategies. These processes are responsible to inhibit actions and impulse control, self-reflect and monitor, manage time and juggle multiple tasks successfully.
Executive function skills are crucial for learning and development. They also allow us to make healthy choices for ourselves and others.
Executive function skills depend on three types of brain function:
- Working memory – controls our ability to retain and utilise separate pieces of information over short periods of time.
- Mental Flexibility – helps us to sustain or shift attention in response to varying demands or to apply varying rules in different settings.
- Self-control – enables us to set priorities and withstand the urge for impulsive actions or responses.
These brain functions are interrelated; they need to work in coordination with each other for the successful operation of executive function skills. Children are not born with these skills; they are born with the potential to develop them. Difficulties with executive function skills can be displayed by individuals in many different ways.
Common signs of Executive Dysfunction are:
- Individuals may pay attention to minor details, but fail to see how these details fit into a bigger picture.
- Planning and prioritising – could have problems with complex thinking that requires holding more than one train of thought at the same time. May not know how to start a project and become overwhelmed.
- Task Initiation – could be seen as procrastinators or lazy because they struggle with how to start a task.
- Emotional control – could be seen as having poor impulse control and self-regulation, e.g. interrupting, lack of self-monitoring, inconsistency with following rules.
- Working memory – could have trouble holding one piece of information in their head while manipulating the next step in a sequence, e.g. while performing multi-step tasks; remembering directions; taking notes, explanations just given to them.
- Flexibility – may have very concrete ways, be inflexible in their thinking and take things very literally
- Organisation – maintaining their attention, or organising their thoughts and actions, they could constantly lose or misplace things.
Who might have the most difficulty with executive function?
Often individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), or Brain Injury have difficulties with executive function. Delayed or impaired executive skill development can also be caused by toxic stress. Toxic stress can be the result of children not getting what they need from their relationships with adults and the adverse conditions of their environments, e.g. neglect, abuse, and/or violence. Adults can facilitate the development of a child’s executive function skills before they must perform them independently.
Adults can facilitate children’s executive function development by:
- Through environments that promote growth by helping children practice necessary skills creating a ‘scaffold’ or ‘bridge’ from adult support to independence.
- Establishing routines
- Modeling social behaviour
- Creating and maintaining supportive, reliable relationships
- Use developing skills through activities that foster creative play and social connection
- Teach them how to cope with stress
- Encourage vigorous exercise
- Over time, provide opportunities for self-directing their actions with decreasing adult supervision.
The main strategies that could be used to support the development of individual’s executive function skills are:
- Performing Tasks – repetition of instructions and one instruction at a time, allocate sufficient time for instructions, repetition of instructions and assistance as necessary, weekly logs, e.g. homework sent from home to school and back. Keep all parties informed of work due, note dates, (e.g. large projects broken into manageable units) and progress.
- Task supports – have an organised work space with materials handy and sectioned differently.
- Transition supports – pre warnings of changes and cues, e.g. timers, particular sounds or actions, objects, visuals; allow extra time.
- Use a range of visual supports and/or digital devices; colour code checklists, timetables, plans, assignments, mind maps, photos, schedules, tick charts, narratives.
- Organisation – break tasks into smaller achievable chunks or steps; day planners, bulletin boards, smartphone apps, file-sharing software and password manager software.
- Systems and Routines – set up routine systems, e.g. put notes in the same place every time, create checking/review strategies. Identify a regular time for tasks such as, clearing out and organising backpacks
- Modelling or guiding individuals – provide opportunities for hand-on practice and individual assistance
- Time management tools– could use time timers or digital schedules, calendars to record commitments, events, transitions.
- Limit choices and/or provide visuals of choices to aid decision making.
- Concentration and space – preferential desk or table placement away from distractions
- Emotional regulation – provide extra time and support to develop life skills such as the development of self-control, resilience and sensitivity towards their own and others’ feelings. Apply this learning to a variety of people, places and settings.
What doesn’t work?
- Withholding favourite activities
- Punishment – negative reinforcement
If you wish to request further information in relation to executive function challenges common to specific disabilities, you are welcome to contact us or submit a web request:
- Parent to Parent NZ: https://parent2parent.org.nz/contact-us/
- Altogether Autism: https://altogetherautism.org.nz/personalised-information/