By Dr. Jennifer Imig Huffman
Executive functioning (EF) weaknesses are commonly associated with different childhood challenges. They are often the culprit behind many of the struggles that children have at home and school. For example, EF weaknesses are noted in children with ADHD, autism, learning disabilities, brain injury/concussion, OCD, Tourette’s, pediatric depression/anxiety, bipolar, and even giftedness. Children can have one or multiple EF weaknesses. Some children’s EF skills develop naturally on their own but others may need support at home and/or school to develop these skills.
What is Executive Functioning?
Executive functioning (EF) is a term used for the complex brain functions responsible for guiding and directing our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. It is comprised of thinking and doing skills.
The processes that make up EF are located primarily in the frontal regions of the brain (prefrontal region) with connections throughout the brain, including the limbic system and cerebellum.
The prefrontal region is intricately connected with all areas of the brain, very much like highways and country roads. Through these pathways it receives information from other areas of the brain and then exerts its regulatory control. It directs our behaviors through directing our attention, connects our current behaviors together with our past experiences, helps us control our emotions and behaviors, and helps us to observe and fine-tune our behaviors.
One of the unique aspects of the prefrontal area/EF system is that it is one of the last parts of the brain to develop. In fact, researchers have found continued growth in this area well into adulthood!
Common Skills Associated with Executive Functioning Include:
- Sustained attention, working memory, and freedom from distractibility (ignoring irrelevant sights, sounds, smells from the environment, etc)
- Initiation and persistence: Starting a task when it is supposed to be started, without prompting, and sticking with it until completion
- Motivation: Starting and persisting on a task that doesn’t have an immediate reward or one that is “boring”
- Task switching: Changing from thinking or working on one task to thinking or working on a different task — without prompting
- Response inhibition: Stopping a task when it is meant to be stopped. This also refers to stopping a thought or behavior from occurring when it is not supposed to occur and not engaging in risky behaviors
- Cognitive flexibility: Being flexible in approaches to a task or problem when flexibility is needed
- Emotional regulation: Feeling and expressing emotions in a consistent and nonreactive manner, also having good frustration tolerance
- Planning and organization: Planning for future events and assignments, breaking down tasks into manageable pieces, keeping one’s belongings organized without losing them
- Time management: Awareness of time and the passage of time, knowing how much time a task might take, and not waiting until the last minute to do a task
- Metacognition: Knowing about how other’s think and how to engage in problem-solving
EF weaknesses in children look different at home and school, and different techniques and accommodations to support their development may be needed in each area. In school, homework completion, organization, project planning, handwriting legibility, ability to show work, low motivation, and weak written expression are the most common EF concerns noted by teachers. At home, chore completion, cue-dependent self-help skills, immaturity, low motivation, and impaired problem-solving are the most common EF concerns noted by parents.
Originally published in Health Cells Magazine, June 2, 2014