The executive functioning skills describe our higher-level mental abilities to manage and regulate tasks, actions, and emotions. They are helpful in keeping us alert, timely, and emotionally secure.
The skills involve the use of logic to have our lives under constant check and prevent negative energy and emotions from taking over.
To illustrate, our executive functions are working just fine if we can;
- plan, start, execute, and complete goals
- pay attention and filter distractions
- juggle multiple tasks and time efficiently
- have inhibitory control and better self-management
- have an open and flexible mind
- regulate and control our private and public behavior
- control our anger, sadness and even happiness
These skills are important for children too because they are central to academic excellence, social-emotional wellbeing, and productivity.
Children who are helped to achieve higher levels of ‘executive functions’ become better learners and workers, exhibit positive behavior, live accomplished lives, and make healthy choices in personal, family, and public life.
The opposite is true in children who fail to achieve healthy executive functioning skills. They may have problems learning and reasoning, and will exhibit negative behavior, and have questionable personalities.
Fortunately or unfortunately, children are not born with working executive functions, but rather, they come into this world with inherent capabilities to learn them.
This they do with the help of parents, educators, and clinicians who set up supportive routines, playtime, and games.
What happens is that parents, educators, and clinicians set up relevant scaffoldings and structures that enhance the learning of these lifelong skills.
NOTE: The executive functions and the human anatomy
Executive functioning skills are associated with the frontal lobes of the brain located just above the eyes. To support the frontal lobes are the connecting cortical lobes and subcortical frameworks. The frontal lobes account for roughly 40% of the size of the brain and are also the LAST faculties of the brain to develop and mature.
The breakdown of executive functioning skills and self-regulation
Different sources and arguments list anything from 5 to 12 executive functioning skills, but these can be summarized into three broad categories:
1. Working memory
Working memory sums up the human ability to retain new information and use it efficiently in an ongoing cognitive activity.
Failure to execute working memory can be explained when someone is forgetful, slow in solving problems, and planless when faced with new challenges that demand prompt answers and actions.
This is evident when a child is given two tasks, but for some reason, only remembers one. When you send your child to fetch your boots and remind her to get your belt first, your child may remember to get the watch and forget about the boots, or vice versa.
Working memory is like a ‘sticky note’ in the brain which retains information during an active cognitive activity.
It facilitates planning, comprehension, reasoning, and problem-solving.NCBI
Factors such as attention and focus play a big role in furthering working memory. These can be disturbed by distractions and health reasons. This is not to say distractions are bad. Rather, children must learn to work their way through distractions.
Also true, the tasks given to children should not be the reason they fail to focus and pay attention.
For example, working memory should not be taxed to the extent that comprehension becomes hard. In the following sentence, comprehension can be a problem both for children and adults:
It is said that, if your work is not overwhelming, your car is in good repair, and the leaves have changed color, it is a good time for a fall vacation.NCBI
Yet the sentence can make better sense if said differently:
It is said that a good time for a fall vacation is when your work is not overwhelming, your car is in good repair, and the leaves have changed color.NCBI
Of course, working memory improves with time through life experiences and knowledge.
In order to have your child master this mental skill, he should be encouraged to create mental images of the tasks at hand or the text he is reading. He should also be taught to read wide, play games, and chunk information into small bits.
2. Flexible thinking
Flexible thinking or cognitive flexibility describes the ability to figure out multiple solutions to everyday tasks and emerging challenges.
This happens in real life because our plans do not pan out as planned, which forces us to figure out new solutions. It is more or less a Plan B strategy! Ultimately, we tweak our decisions based on emerging challenges.
With cognitive flexibility, we are tasked to:
- adjust our thinking and expectations by adapting to new situations and environment
- look at things differently by shifting approaches
- explore new possibilities by improvising with new and better solutions
A child with a flexible mentality will not mind switching seats in the classroom in the event that another child takes his.
Elsewhere, when you send your child to the supermarket to purchase your favorite peanut butter and it is missing, his ability to opt for an alternative butter is very important. Without a flexible mentality, your child will most likely walk back home empty-handed.
Also true, your child’s ability to figure out an alternative route to school when the main road is closed is invaluable especially when the ‘obvious‘ option is to walk back home.
Children who are brought up in a rigid design where only one answer fits the bill will most likely fall victim to the demands of flexible thinking.
Parents and educators can incorporate the concepts of rigidity and flexible thinking in play and other tasks, to help children enhance the flexible faculties of the brain.
Self-control, self-discipline, or inhibitory control describes the mental skills we use to manage and restrain our thoughts, actions, emotions, and other responses.
The skill helps us to think before we engage in useless fights with persons with whom we disagree. This gives meaning to the phrase – think before you act. Its perfection builds up to the big picture of emotional intelligence.
Children learn to master this skill when parents themselves exhibit self-control at home. They will only learn to control their emotions and desires when parents control theirs and remind them to sit back and think before doing anything silly.
We can find out if these skills have developed correctly by subjecting children to marshmallow tests and other experiments. As much as these tests may not reflect the true development of self-control, somehow, they are indicators of child development.
Executive function disorders:
Children with executive function disorders will exhibit some or most of the following:
- Difficulty staying organized in private and in public:
- Find it hard to process, store, and retrieve information
- Socially inhibited
- Difficulty planning for now and tomorrow
- Finds it hard to manage time
- Difficulty paying attention and sitting still like others
- Do not start and complete tasks unless repeatedly reminded
- Regularly lose personal belongings and other stuff
- Poor at managing multiple tasks
- Have trouble managing emotions and impulses
- Get involved in risky activities
- Lack the concern and care for people and animals
- Lack self-awareness
- Stay away from challenging tasks
- Have low levels of motivation and interest
Other factors known to disrupt executive functioning skills
Executive function deficits may happen as a result of medical and other conditions listed here:
- Brain injury
- Drug and other substance abuse
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
If you want your children to live happily and become successful, make an effort to boost their executive functions.
Executive functioning skills will begin to make sense to children when parents, educators, and clinicians practice them first. Coupled with parental trust and willingness to think outside the box, children will see reasons to embrace them and maximize their benefits.
The early efforts to nurture executive functions will ultimately become the predictors of what they will become when they grow up.