Each of us navigates daily life - learning, work, recreation and relationships - thanks to intrinsic skills called executive functions.
However, children and adults with learning and attention issues - including learning disabilities (LD) and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) - often struggle with these skills that many of us take for granted.
In this article, we will discuss what executive functioning skills are, signs of difficulties with these skills, and activities that can strengthen various components of executive function.
Executive functioning skills are self-management skills that enable individuals to accomplish tasks and account for the short- and long-term consequences of their actions.
These skills allow us to perform activities such as planning, organizing, strategizing, remembering details, following step-by-step directions, and managing time and space.
Executive functioning skills are built, not born. Our genes provide the blueprint for learning these skills, but they develop through experience and practice.
According to the Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function (BRIEF), there are 8 main executive functioning skills:
Let's explore each skill in turn...
Inhibition is the ability to stop and think before acting. Without inhibitory control, we would be at the mercy of our impulses and would find it difficult to resist temptations.
This executive functioning skill makes it possible for us to choose how we react and how we behave rather than being unthinking creatures of habit.
Self-monitoring is the ability to monitor and evaluate performance and keep track of actions that impact goals.
Self-monitoring can include behaviors related to work (e.g. reviewing deliverables, making improvements, fixing errors) but it can also include social behaviors and situational awareness, e.g., adjusting to social norms and apologizing when we cause inconvenience to others.
Planning is the ability to anticipate future events, set goals, and develop appropriate steps ahead of time to carry out a task or action.
Individuals who have difficulty planning struggle to impose structure and order on ideas. They tend to underestimate a project’s
complexity and time requirements, as well as prioritizing which tasks should be done
immediately and which can wait.
Organization is the ability to establish and maintain order within an activity and carry out a task in a systematic manner.
It also relates to how we arrange our environment and provide order and structure to the items and activities around us. Organization skills are often closely tied to planning and task initiation - two other necessary executive functioning skills.
Shifting (also known as cognitive flexibility) is the ability to switch from one task or thought process to another.
One aspect of shifting is being able to change perspectives spatially (e.g., “What would this look like if I viewed it from a different direction?”) or interpersonally (e.g., “Let me see if I can see this from your point of view”).
Another aspect of shifting involves thinking outside the box. For example, if one way of solving a problem isn’t working, can we come up with a new way of attacking this or conceiving of this that hadn’t been considered before?
Initiation is the ability to take action and get started on a task. It involves recognizing when it is time to get started on something and begin without procrastinating.
Teens and young adults with task initiation issues might need many reminders from others to start a task; frequently ask for help, even with simple tasks; or engage in problematic behavior to escape or avoid tasks.
Emotional control is the ability to manage your feelings to achieve a goal. It involves perceiving and understanding other people’s emotions, and making attributions of their mental states, including understanding of their beliefs and attitudes.
It also involves remaining calm even when engaged in situations that are disappointing, annoying, frustrating, stressful, and anxiety-provoking. As humans are predominantly social, understanding emotions in oneself and others is an important skill to have.
Working memory is a core executive functioning skill that involves holding information in your mind and using it effectively to complete a task.
Working memory is critical for making sense of anything that unfolds over time, and for identifying connections between seemingly unrelated things.
Doing any math in your head requires working memory, as does mentally reordering items (such as reorganizing a to-do list), translating instructions into action plans, and considering alternatives.
Executive functioning skills develop gradually and the rate of development varies from child to child. Most children struggle at one time or another with planning, organization, and follow-through.
Learning and attention issues, though, complicate this development. Children with LD or ADHD nearly always have difficulty with one or more executive skills, which can lead to obstacles in learning and behavior.
Below are some examples of executive functioning difficulties, along with their associated category.
Please note that this list does not diagnose or pinpoint a specific problem, but it can be helpful as a way to capture your observations and concerns and start a conversation with your child’s school personnel or other professionals.
The child or young adult:
The following are some activities that have been identified as age-appropriate ways to strengthen various components of executive function.
These activities are not the only ones that support the development of executive functioning skills; rather, they represent just a few of the kinds of activities that children may enjoy.
At 6 to 18 months infants are actively developing their core executive functioning skills. Supportive, responsive interactions with adults are the foundation for the healthy development of these skills.
Peekaboo is a "hide-and-find" game that exercises working memory and self control skills, because it challenges the baby to remember who is hiding and wait for the adult to reveal him or herself.
During this stage of development, children are rapidly expanding their language skills. Language plays an important role in the development of executive function, as it helps children identify their thoughts and actions, reflect on them, and hold information in their mind for later use.
Conversation and storytelling
Simply watching and narrating their play can be a great way to help very young children understand how language can describe their actions. As children get older, questions can be added, such as “What will you do next?” or “Which hat will teddy bear wear?" "We can't go this way, is there another way to go around the track?".
These comments help children pause to reflect on what they are trying to do, how what they have tried has worked, and how to plan their next move.
Children’s executive functioning skills grow at a fast pace during this period, so it is important to adapt activities to match the skills of each child.
Younger children need a lot of support in learning rules and structures, while older children can be more independent.
Movement challenges: songs and games
Songs and movement games support executive function because children have to move to a specific rhythm and synchronize words to actions and the music. All of these tasks contribute to inhibitory control and working memory.
Songs that repeat and add on to earlier sections (either through words or motions) are a great challenge to working memory, such as the motions to She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain, songs like the Alphabet Song that repeat a long list, and backward-counting songs, such as Five Green and Speckled Frogs.
At this age, children start to enjoy games that have rules, but do so with widely varying levels of interest and skill.
As the child players become familiar with these games, try to decrease the adult role as soon as possible; the challenge is greater for children if they remember and enforce the rules independently.
Card games and board games
Games that require players to remember the location of particular cards are great at exercising working memory. In addition, games in which the child can match playing cards, either by suit or number, are good for developing cognitive flexibility. Examples include Crazy Eights, Uno, and Spoons.
For children in this age range, it is important to steadily increase the complexity of games and activities.
Organized sports become very popular for many children during this period. Such sports help children develop the ability to hold complicated rules and strategies in mind, monitor their own and others’ actions, make quick decisions, and respond flexibly to play.
There is also evidence that high levels of physical activity, particularly activity that requires coordination, like soccer, can improve all aspects of executive function.
During adolescence, executive functioning skills are not yet at adult levels, but the demands placed on these skills often are.
For example, teenagers need to communicate effectively in multiple contexts and self-regulate in order to manage their homework assignments and complete more complex projects.
Goal setting, planning and monitoring
Encourage teens to identify something specific that they want to accomplish, such as getting a driver’s license, saving money to buy a computer, or planning a social event. Here it is important that the goals are meaningful to the teen and not established by others.
Next, help your teen develop a personal development plan to reach these goals. They should identify short and long-term goals and think about what has to be done to achieve them. They should also be encouraged to identify potential problems that might arise, and ways that they might plan ahead for them.
Much like an air traffic control system at an airport helps planes on different runways land and take off safely, executive functioning skills help our brains prioritize tasks, filter distractions, and control impulses.
Providing the support that children need to build these skills in school, at home, and in other settings enables them to grow into adults who are capable of managing multiple commitments while sticking to healthy habits.
Thanks for reading!
(n.d.). Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children .... Retrieved March 5, 2023, from https://children.wi.gov/Documents/Harvard%20Parenting%20Resource.pdf
(2012, September 27). Executive Functions - PMC - NCBI. Retrieved March 5, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4084861/
(n.d.). Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function - ScienceDirect.com. Retrieved March 5, 2023, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/behavior-rating-inventory-of-executive-function
(n.d.). EXECUTIVE FUNCTION 101 - Genetic.Org. Retrieved March 5, 2023, from https://genetic.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Exec-Function-e-book.pdf
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