The executive functioning skills describe our higher-level mental abilities to manage, recall, and control tasks, actions, behavior, and emotions. What this means is that the executive function of the brain is working fine if we,
- plan, start and execute goals
- pay attention and filter distractions
- juggle multiple tasks
- manage time efficiently
- manage our emotions
- have inhibitory control
- have an open-mind
- regulate and control our private and public behavior
These skills are important throughout life and 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 working, will exhibit negative behavior, and have questionable personalities.
Children are not necessarily 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 favorable routines, playtime, and games.
What happens is that parents, educators, and clinicians set up supportive scaffoldings or structures that enhance the learning of these lifelong skills.
Inside the human anatomy, executive functioning skills are associated with the frontal lobes of the brain located just above the eyes. Other supportive structures include the cortical lobes and subcortical frameworks connecting to the frontal lobes. The frontal lobes are also the LAST faculties of the brain to develop and mature and account for roughly 40% of the brain size.
The breakdown of executive functioning skills and self-regulation
Different sources and arguments list anything from 5 up to 12 executive functioning skills, but all can be grouped into three broad categories:
1. Working memory
Working memory sums up the ability in children and adults to retain new information they have learned, to be used in an ongoing cognitive activity. This contrasts with short-term and long-term memories which are storage-based memory skills used for short and long-term retention of information.
Working memory is much more like a ‘sticky note’ which retains working information during active cognition.
It facilitates planning, comprehension, reasoning, and problem-solving.NCBI
Failure to execute working memory can be explained when someone is forgetful, slow in solving problems, and planless when faced with challenges that demand prompt solutions.
This happens when a child is given two tasks, but for some reason only remembers one in a short time frame. When you send a child to fetch your bootsbut remind her to get your belt first, the child may remember to get the watch and forgot all about the boots, or vice versa.
Factors such as attention and focus play a big role in furthering working memory. In a bid to cement this skill, parents are tasked to ensure that other distractions are not the reason children fail to retain information.
While the atmosphere and environment should be friendly, the task at hand should also not confuse the child.
For example, a person’s working memory should not be taxed to the extent that comprehension becomes almost impossible. 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 increased knowledgebase.
To better the skill in children, they should be encouraged to create an image in their mind of what they are tasked with or the text they are reading. They should be challenged 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 problems and new challenges.
This can happen in real life when plans change, events do not go as planned, or something else must be conjured up in place of another. It is more or less a Plan B strategy!
With cognitive flexibility, we are tasked to:
- adjust ourthinking and expectations by adapting to new situations and environment
- look at things differently by shifting approaches
- explore new possibilities by improvising new and better solutions
Ultimately, we tweak our decisions based on emerging challenges before us. A child with a flexible mentality will not mind switching seats in the classroom in the event that another child takes his.
Elsewhere, when a child is sent to the supermarket to purchase a named peanut butter brand and it is missing, the ability to figure out a fitting alternative is very important. Without a flexible design in the brain, your child will most likely walk back home to inquire what he can purchase instead.
Also true, the ability by your child 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 or other tasks, to help kids manage the flexible faculties of their brains.
Self-control, self-discipline, or inhibitory control describes the skills we use to manage and restrain our thoughts, actions, emotions, and other responses. Self-control will help us think before we engage in altercations with a person with whom we disagree.
Self-control as in response inhibition is invaluable when we stop and THINK and therefore don’t do something we may regret.
This gives meaning to the phrase – think before you act, and its perfection leads to emotional intelligence.
Children need help in managing self-control when they become irritable due to small disagreements with peers and parents. They probably benefit a lot when parents reward them for achieving self-restraint: of course, this must not be abused.
Self-control is also necessary when children have to balance tasks in favor of what is important versus what is desirable. For example, homework should be done at the right time and correctly, and not rushed because of the desire to play a computer game.
Of course, children become better at controlling their emotions and desires when parents continuously remind them to sit back and think carefully before reacting.
We can find out if these skills have developed correctly by testing children with marshmallows and other experiments. Of course, these tests may not reflect the true development of the skills but somehow are indicators of the overall well-being of children as they grow up.
Executive function disorders:
Children with executive function disorders will exhibit some or most of the following:
- Difficulty staying organized in private and 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 that may 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
Executive functioning skills will begin to make sense to children when parents, educators, and clinicians practice them first and at all times. Coupled with parental trust, children will see reasons to embrace them and maximize their benefits.
The early efforts to nurture children correctly ultimately become the predictors of what they will become when they grow up.