Executive functioning and self-regulation skills are the skills enabling people to process incoming information, utilize their past experiences, and make decisions with this information. Most of these essential functioning skills come with the development of the frontal cortex of the brain. In the average person, these get stronger with age.
Development of these functions in the brain starts as a baby, improves in early childhood, and should be well developed by adolescence. By adulthood, we expect these functions to be well developed, in order to network them and use them effectively. Good executive functioning skills make it possible to, for example, graduate from school, hold down a job, have a successful marriage, and raise children. Unfortunately, some of these skills will weaken in later adulthood.
What are Executive Functioning Skills?
These functions are referred to as executive functioning skills because they are the skills allowing one to make decisions, or, in other words, execute goals and plans. Consider, for example, an executive in a business environment. A business executive makes use of these skills every time he or she processes information, organizes it, makes a plan, and carries out that plan. If one or more of these skills are weak, this process can suffer. An individual can improve them through a one-on-one coaching plan. Third Space Mentors offers this type of coaching, as well as other types of tutoring programs. For more information, follow this link: http://www.thirdspacementors.com/services/executive-function-training/
Numerous articles have been written about executive functioning skills. These skills may also be referred to as social skills. Each article and author, as is shown below, has their own twist on the list of skills and their functions, but the discussion centers on the fact that to have a successful, healthy, and functioning life, one must develop these skills. Development will happen naturally for most people, but others will need some teaching and coaching of these functions to participate in social situations.
Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, in their video “Why Executive Function Is So Important for Your Child,” breaks down executive functions into three categories. These categories are working memory, inhibitory control, and mental flexibility.
The video points out that these three skills must network with each other in order for one to live and thrive in our social society. They interact similarly to an air-traffic control center, for example. Just as an air traffic controller must be able to sort through all of the incoming information to determine what is important to the task at hand, so too do these skills aid in sifting through the information one receives. Additionally, these skills allow one to dismiss or ignore distractions.
Working memory is the skill aiding in remembering the task at hand when there are other interruptions, stimuli, and information simultaneously present. Children develop this skill through games and group activities. For example, during a board game, each child takes his or her turn to roll the dice, move their piece the correct number of spaces, and follow any instructions that may be on the board. If working memory is underdeveloped, the child may be distracted by, e.g., other groups of students, or noises in the hall. When the child is reminded to take their turn, they cannot recall what to do during their turn. This can become frustrating for the student and their playmates. It may become difficult for the student to make friends and keep them.
The inhibitory control function aids in getting along with others. When a child is sharing something with another child, this function helps them to stop themselves from grabbing the item back or hitting the other child. A temper tantrum is an example of not having a grasp on this skill. As a child grows, proper development of the skill will allow them to develop ways of coping with the temptation to “throw a fit.” It can be uncomfortable for peers witnessing a child who is acting out in this way. Oftentimes, this can lead to alienation from the group.
Mental flexibility is the ability to adapt to situations and change. Children need to learn to adjust to change. Mental flexibility is needed in many instances as a small child: from going to school to the first time to wearing their second favorite pajamas, a child will process much change in their early life. This skill becomes relevant at school, when it is time to move on to a different subject or activity, even when one doesn’t want to stop the first activity.
More Detailed Executive Functioning Skills
Another list of these executive functions is given by Amanda Morin, in her Understood.org Newsletter article “At a Glance: 8 Key Executive Functions.” The article breaks down the executive functioning skills into a list of eight, more detailed abilities.
- Impulse control
- Emotional control
- Flexible thinking
- Working memory
- Planning and prioritizing
- Task initiation
Impulse control is the ability to stop oneself before acting on impulse, such as blurting out something inappropriate, or speaking out of turn. It is also resisting the temptation to do something that may cause harm or offense to others. Children may scream, hit, or kick when they do not have a good grasp on this skill.
Emotional control is being able to keep feelings under control. One example of this skill being underdeveloped is if one cannot deal with criticism without breaking down emotionally. Whether the criticism comes from another child or a teacher, a student must know how to calmly listen to others, and return to the task with this new knowledge in mind. Difficulty with emotional control becomes a larger problem as a person grows up. Immaturity as a child can be excused because of age. When an adult “acts like a child,” however, it is not so easily excused. Weakness in this skill can affect relationships with a partner or business associate.
Flexible thinking can be difficult for both children and adults. Seeing things from another person’s point of view is difficult if this function is poorly developed. Shifting gears, so to speak, from one activity to another can also be overwhelming when this skill is undeveloped, especially if the first task is incomplete. Weakness in this functioning skill can also hinder the acceptance of a substitute teacher or moving to a new home.
Working memory allows a person to remember steps for a task. In early years, remembering more than one or two steps is not developmentally possible. As with physical growth, working memory growth should improve with age. A continued weakness in this skill will make it hard to follow more than a couple of steps on an assignment. Repetition of the instructions alone does not seem to help the person to remember those steps. Further teaching and coaching in this skill area can help provide methods to deal with a weak working memory.
Self-monitoring refers to the ability to evaluate how one is doing on an assignment or project. One who struggles with this skill may think they are making the appropriate strides on an assignment when in fact they are not. After a term of incomplete assignments, a failing grade will come as a complete surprise. Assistance with making checklists is one way to help anyone improve their self-monitoring skills.
Planning and Prioritizing
Planning and prioritizing goes hand in hand with self-monitoring. A person who lacks these skills has a problem figuring out which parts of a project are the most important. They are not able to put together a plan that will meet deadlines. This becomes more of a dilemma when projects in middle school and high school become more detailed and lengthy. The student may be working on one part of the assignment, but completely miss a more important part.
Task initiation helps a person get started on a task. A person who struggles with this function will just “freeze up” or “spin their wheels” instead of just getting started on an assignment. They may feel overwhelmed with thoughts of the whole project and cannot see how to break it into manageable parts. Ways to motivate initiation can be taught with a study coach’s expertise.
The organization function helps a person keep track of things like homework, scheduling, and personal belongings. People who have a hard time with this skill may often lose or forget objects and appointments. They may not be able to figure out how to put things away in an organized spot. Students with this problem sometimes can have a desk full of finished assignments that were never submitted to the teacher. Lack of this skill can be labeled laziness as an adult, and can influence the way co-workers think of the person.
Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder Show Similar Symptoms
Often, difficulty with executive function skills, known as Executive Function Disorder (EFD) is hard to distinguish from ADHD, or Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder. Larry Silver, M.D., in his article for ADDitude newsletter “Is it Exectuve Function Disorder (EFD) or ADHD?” lists the steps of executive functions as follows:
- Analyze a task
- Plan how to address the task
- Organize the steps needed to carry out the task
- Develop timelines for completing the task
- Adjust or shift the steps, if needed, to complete the task
- Complete the task in a timely way
Whether someone is diagnosed with EFD or ADHD, the development of executive functions remains difficult for the student, parents, and teachers. As students, they may not be able to adequately plan for an assignment’s completion, for example. Organizing the parts of an assignment can be very difficult for them to carry out. They may need help creating a time-line and a checklist for each step. Being able to adjust the steps in order to complete the assignment on time will also need some coaching.
Parents can get frustrated with their children because assignments pile up. The student can get frustrated with the process of homework and not do it at all. Teachers deal with the same type of frustrations. In most cases, the student wastes a lot of time in class avoiding the work. Getting organized and started is a crucial part of the effort, and this is where good coaching can facilitate improvement.
Dawson and Guare Developed Reference Table
Defining executive functions has been a topic of discussion for many years. In 2004, Dawson and Guare developed the following reference table that breaks it down into more detailed skill areas.
Whether executive functioning skills are broken into a list of three, six, eight, or eleven, it is important that these skills be addressed. Having a grasp on these executive functions is essential to live and thrive successfully in society. Having a working memory, inhibitory control, and mental flexibility comes easy for most, but others need to be taught and coached by professionals. These skills are expected in individuals who want to function successfully in society, and therefore those who do not have these skills developed will continue to encounter difficulty in their tasks.
Coaching and Tutoring
The one-on-one coaching available through Third Space Mentors, found via the link below this paragraph, is a great place to start. The program will assess each student’s strengths and weaknesses. A specific program will then be developed to meet their individual needs. The introduction of models, strategies, tools and coaching that empower students to overcome challenges will enable the student to flourish.
Frustration does not have to be constant: contact our trained, tutoring professionals and get the answers you need:
Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child. “Why Executive Function Is So Important for Your Child.” www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues
Amanda Morin. Understood.org. “At a Glance: 8 Key Executive Functions.”
Larry Silver, M.D. ADDitude. “Is It Executive Function Disorder (EFD) or ADHD?” www.additudemag.com/adhd/article/7051
Dawson and Guare. “Executive Skills: 11 Skill Areas.” http://mosaiceducation.ca