Executive Functioning

Executive Functioning

Executive functioning encompasses multiple brain-based skills which are required to plan and execute a task. These skills include attention, emotional control, planning/organizing, sequencing, time management and task initiation. Executive functioning skills are consistently being used as they are required for successful participation in activities throughout the day. 

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Response Inhibition

How many times did you hear growing up, “Think before you act!”? This concept that we learn to develop is called Response Inhibition and refers to the ability to resist the urge to speak or act before you have the ability to think about the situation. In children, this ability begins to develop more rapidly as language starts to develop and it is the foundation that allows all other executive skills to develop. Difficulties with inhibition therefore impact a child’s attention, planning, organizing, problem solving, and social development. Response inhibition develops throughout childhood but may regress in adolescence as stronger emotions, autonomy, and independence develop, leading toward sometimes more impulsive behavior. Here are a list of suggestions to help guide your child through developing impulse control:

 

  • Consistency with limit setting, including bedtimes, guidelines around snacks/food, sticking to after school routines, electronic device rules

  • Work on delaying instant gratification by teaching and modeling how to wait a reasonable time after making a request. Use visual cues such as timers to help your child define the amount of time until an item or their request can be granted

  • Prepare your child for what may occur during a situation so they can prepare for their reaction. Ex - while playing a game - “What may happen on my next turn? How will you feel if I roll a 6? What can you do if you feel disappointed?”

  • Directly point out instances your child demonstrates self control - catch them in the act of inhibiting unexpected actions and praise them for it!

  • Help make goals with your child - keep it simple, use sticker charts to help work toward a goal/reward

  • Recognize that lack of sleep and increased stress can cause impulse control to decline - reflect on how to support your child with regulation. What environmental changes can be done to help promote a calm environment which will help them to feel calm themselves?

Organization

Organization is a skill that develops in young childhood as caregivers explicitly teach, supervise, and monitor their child’s ability to clean up their belongings and put commonly used items in the same location. Independence begins to develop as children learn rules regarding organization established by the caregiver and incremental increase in expectations as the child ages. Here are some tips to help develop organization.

 

  • Room cleaning - Help break down the task - “Let’s put away your books first, then put your clothes in the laundry basket”

  • Provide consistent reminders for where belongings go - “Hang your towel on the hook after your bath” “Place your backpack in the closet after school”

  • Provide significant praise when your child completes a task without reminders, but recognize that children need reminders for most organizational tasks

  • Involve your child’s input in developing new organizational systems for toys, books, schoolwork, backpack, etc.

  • Recognize a progressive decrease of supervision is necessary from the caregiver in order to foster independence. This starts as providing direct cueing to the child for each step with caregiver present for the whole task -> supervision through the whole task with guiding questions as needed -> reminders for starting the activity with only intermittent check ins -> 1 check in at the end of the task.

  • Take a picture of what an organized bedroom, playroom, binder, desk looks like

  • Set time in daily routine for organization of select areas

  • Incentivize maintenance of organizational systems

  • By middle school, children should be able to maintain organization on their own, given they have developed these systems in younger years

Planning

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Planning is the ability to create a road map to complete a task. This executive functioning skill requires individuals to make decisions about what elements to prioritize and an order to execute tasks.  Planning includes assessment of all components of the process and determining an effective way to complete the goal/task.  A child with difficulty planning may struggle to execute multi step tasks and decide which elements are most important. To promote development of planning skills, post it notes can be used for indicating steps as well as organizing visuals of all steps.  Have your child practice planning by planning something fun!

Task Initiation

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Task initiation is the ability to begin projects without undue procrastination, in an efficient or timely fashion. For example, a young child displays the skill of task initiation if they are able to start a chore or assignment right after instructions are given. Similarly, a teenager with strong task initiation skills does not wait until the last minute to begin a project. There are environmental modifications that can be utilized if a child has difficulty with task initiation, including the following: 1) hold off a pleasurable activity until the task is done (or started), 2) suspend access to distractions, 3) keep the degree of required effort low (e.g., by limiting the time spent on the aversive task), and 4) utilize technology to set an alarm or reminder on your phone.

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Metacognition

Metacognition is the ability to stand back and take a bird’s eye-view of yourself in a situation, to observe how you problem solve. It also includes self-monitoring and self-evaluative skills (e.g., asking yourself, “How am I doing?” Or How did I do?”). For instance, through metacognition, a young child can change behavior in response to feedback from an adult, and a teenager can monitor and critique her performance and improve it by observing others who are more skilled. In order to improve one’s metacognition, one can 1) create a system for analyzing mistakes, 2) learn to ask for feedback from others, and 3) use a problem-solving templates.

Goal Directed Persistence

Goal-directed persistence is the ability to determine a goal, follow through to complete the goal, and not be distracted by competing interests. As adults, we may train hard in order to run a marathon. A teenager may put money aside from a babysitting job to save up for their first car. Or a first grader knows to clean up their materials from coloring before they can go outside to play. This skill is one of the last executive functioning skills to mature. We can help children improve their goal-directed persistence through goal-oriented tasks like finishing a puzzle, having assigned chores, or playing sports. It is helpful if a child is able to identify a goal that is meaningful to them to help with motivation. Having a reward system in place for completing chores is a great way to enhance goal-directed persistence. Caregivers can also help their child identify and praise when they demonstrated “grit” or persevered through challenges to complete a goal.

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Working Memory

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Working memory is the ability to hold information in your memory while performing tasks. It encompasses the ability to draw on past experiences and apply them to a situation at hand. Working memory is a crucial skill for playing sports and games, following multi-step directions, and remembering expectations within an environment, such as school. When working memory is a challenge, often times it appears as noncompliance and a behavioral problem when really, it’s a skill deficit! Children can help develop working memory skills by trying to visualize steps of an activity prior to executing a task, practicing routines, task sequencing lists, and chunking – providing only a few steps at a time of a task.

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Sustained Attention

Sustained attention is the capacity to continue to pay attention to a situation, task, or engage in play in spite of distractibility, fatigue, or boredom. This may present as jumping from activity to activity with little engagement in the previous activity, requiring constant supervision and reminders to complete simple chores, or difficulty completing schoolwork. Preschool age children should be able to complete self -help tasks such as setting and clearing the table, getting dressed, and cleaning up toys played with. Kindergarteners can focus on activities for 10–15-minute increments. Throughout elementary school, children increase their ability to focus and filter out environmental distractions so they can sustain attention for the duration of a task. Some strategies to increase a child’s attention include:

 

  • Minimize distractions – turn off background sounds like TV, radio, etc; remove clutter from the table; use a consistent place in the house for performing tasks that require attention such as homework

  • Use a visual schedule – identifying the start and end of a routine or activity can help your child sustain their attention as they can help identify when they will be finished

  • Build in movement breaks into a long task – movement and exercise can improve a child’s alertness and improve overall attention

  • Praise your child for their engagement in a task

Flexibility

The ability to revise plans in the face of obstacles, setbacks, new information, or mistakes, it relates to an adaptability to changing conditions. We can begin teaching flexibility through sharing and compromise with children at a young age.  Discussing potential changes in routine/outcomes can help children prepare to be flexible. Examples of flexibility in kindergarteners include, being able to adjust to a change in plans or routines (may need a warning), learning how to recover quickly from minor disappointments, and showing willingness to share toys with others.

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Impulse Control

Working Memory

The ability to manage emotions to achieve goals, complete tasks, or control and direct your behavior. In early infancy, babies expect parents to respond to their physical needs as they arise and when these needs are met consistently and predictably, babies are generally able to hold their emotions within bounds. There are times when adults can’t supply immediate relief, so babies gradually learn to soothe themselves. As children grow up, they benefit from routines and start to develop rituals. Some children can tolerate changes in the routine, while others get agitated. Kids with low emotional control can appear rigid as emotional control and flexibility frequently overlap.

Difficulties in kindergarten may look like: disappointment with a change in plans, using physical solutions when another child takes a toy he or she was playing with, and difficulty playing in a group without becoming overly excited.

Elementary aged children frequently will encounter social problems such as trouble sharing toys, losing games, or not getting their way during make-believe games. 

 

Here are a list of suggestions to help guide your child through developing impulse control:

  • Regulate the environment: building routines and structure and avoiding places that cause your child to be overstimulated. 

  • Talk about what to expect and what they can do if they feel overwhelmed

  • Provide coping strategies: What are things that they can do when feeling overwhelmed 

  • Provide a script to help problem solve through challenging situations

  • Read stories that model positive emotional control

Time Management

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Time management is the ability to estimate the amount of time needed to complete a task and stay within time limits to complete a task. Examples of time management requirements for a young child include completing a short job within a time limit given by an adult (we are leaving in 5 minutes, you need to put away your Legos before we have to leave). Examples for a teenager include planning parts of a long-term project to ensure its completed by the due date. 

 

In order to develop time management skills a child must first understand time. To begin developing this skill you can have a child practice estimating how long it will take to do something, discuss what activities in their life are longer/shorter (ex- driving home versus to grandmas), and equating time to the length of a favorite show or length of a song. Using alarms and timers can also adapt the environment to promote time management skill use.