Executive Function seems to have become the new buzz phrase in the last few years, but actually it has been around for a long time. Executive Function (EF) is not a single concept; in fact it’s an umbrella term for many brain functions such as organization, memory, self-control, attention control, initiative, planning and many others. It is the cognitive processes that assist us in achieving our goals. It begins during infancy, develops throughout childhood and continues until early adulthood. EF skills are associated with the frontal lobe, and often you will hear EF being used interchangeably with frontal lobe function.
Many children have EF deficits; in fact a child does not need to have a diagnosable disability to struggle with EF. Whereas ADHD is one group that usually has EF deficits, it can also be found in children born prematurely, those with Autism, head injuries, stroke, depression, and learning disabilities. Individuals can be diagnosed with EF deficits with testing by neuropsychologists and psychologists. Neuropsychologists tend to be more flexible with their battery of testing and will have more test instruments to fully examine all the domains. Just because a neuropsychologist does not find any EF deficits does not mean there are not EF deficits.
EF is not a stand alone diagnosis; it is not in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). In addition, it is rarely holistically addressed in IEPs (Individual Education Plans) or 504 plans in the education systems. Because of this, it is difficult to get assistance for students with these deficits. Although, sometimes, schools will mention organizational issues as part of another primary diagnosis. It is critical in planning for these to children to remember that EF and intelligence are not equal. Just because a child has a high IQ does not mean that their executive functioning skills are commensurately high.
Here is a real life example of how we use our EF skills everyday:
You are on your way to work where you will be presenting at the weekly meeting. While driving, you receive a call from your child’s school. Your child is sick and needs to be picked up. You know that your spouse is on travel out of the state. You immediately go into problem solving mode, calling a family member to pick up your child while arranging your child’s release from the school. You arrange for a doctor’s appointment the following day and call your office about canceling your appointments to accommodate the hitch. After the plan is in place, you refocusing on preparing mentally for your presentation.
In this example, you can see several of the processes of EF at work: switching from work mode to parent mode, organizing a plan, initiating the plan, self-monitoring throughout the process, and emotional self-control. Parents use these skills every day, and so do children. But, as you can imagine, the child with EF skills struggle to juggle changing priorities. This is one of the reasons it is challenging for your child with EF issues to interrupt their video game to pack their book bag for the next day.
EF challenges present differently in individual children. Some children have organizational issues that result in extreme messiness. At home or at school, these kids may drop things everywhere, leaving a path of shoes, books, backpacks, disorganized lockers and paper filled desks in their wake\. School has many challenges for these kids between late assignments, poor study skills, difficulty getting started on assignments, arriving late for classes, hyper-focusing in some while under-focusing in other classes, and unpredictability in their emotional reactions.
Here are a few tips that might help your EF child get through their school day with less stress:
Organization: Some children with EF difficulties may complete their homework but then forget to turn it in. For this child, create a homework folder with a “to do” and “completed” side. Take a photo of the completed assignment in case it is lost.
Time Management: For the child who has difficulty staying on task and seems to spend 30 minutes on one part of an activity (chores, homework, showers, etc.), use a timer and make sure to take breaks according to a child’s age.
Multi-Step Activities: For the child who can’t seem to remember to hang up their backpack on the hook next to the door or put their shoes in the bin, use laminated checklists and pictures for younger children. Post the list near the door as they walk in.
Written organization: Many children can verbalize their thoughts but when it comes to putting it to paper, they get stuck. Using graphic organizers like the program Inspiration can be helpful.
Self-Regulation: If you can’t beat them, join them. Instead of taking away their devices, help them monitor their own time with apps like Rescue Time and Forest.
You’ve likely heard the expression “Parents are their child’s frontal lobe”. This is very true. When your child was two years old, you expected that you would need to hold their hand to cross a street. By the time your child is 3 or 4, you still hold their hand but they have begun to look both ways before crossing. Similarly, learning EF skills is a process. Not only do you teach the skills and processes, but you also encourage ongoing use with reinforcement, practice, and modeling. Reinforcement is key. Make sure to reward your child when you see them practicing their skills. It’s important for them to associate positivity with their success in learning and establishing these skills.
Crista Hopp, M.A
Connected Pathways Coaching