What is Executive Functioning?

executive functioningOver the next five months we will look at executive functioning and what applications it may have to children with learning disabilities who often have executive functioning disorders.

Psychologists have coined the phrase ‘Executive functioning’ to describe what our brains do when we think, act, and solve problems. Executive functioning also involves learning new information, remembering, retrieving and accessing new information, working on solutions which are then carried out.

Other activities in which our brains are involved include:

  • Make decisions about outcomes;
  • Use sensory information;
  • Work with time, distance, and force;
  • Understand consequences;
  • Choose an appropriate action;
  • Understand decision making.

Generally, most of us can do this without thinking and therefore executive functioning is almost like instinct. However, there are those to whom executive functioning does not come intuitively and will have difficulty with planning, organising and managing time and space.

Executive Functioning

Executive functioning weaknesses can be observable at any age but become more obvious as children reach mid senior primary school. Executive Functioning affects learning in various ways when at school or at home children find difficulty self-regulating their behaviour.

The following may be necessary to consider:

  • Difficulty undertaking, planning and completing projects;
  • Difficulties working on the time a project may take to complete;
  • Difficulties telling a story in the correct sequence using on important information and not the irrelevant detail;
  • Problems starting different activities or thinking independently.
  • Difficulty remembering information while in the process of using that information.

Teachers and parents may find that once they understand the concept of Executive function, it will help to identify not only where the problems may exist for the child but also help identify where their strengths and talents are. Remember that amongst the sea of confusion and difficulty there is always a talent that can be used to the child’s best advantage.

Some Effective Methods that can be used to Help Children and Teenagers Who Lack Executive Function

Last month, we learnt what ‘executive functioning’ means and how it may affect children with learning disabilities. Now we can look at some effective strategies that may help:
Provide organisational aids with clear instructions-these may either be visual or auditory. Children with these dysfunctions are not always sure and often need each step given to them one by one. Make sure that the instructions are clear and easy to understand. They must be geared toward the level and understanding of the individual.

Use diaries, year planners, computers and egg timers. Look at them on a daily basis. Help them develop a habit of ticking off what they have done.

This is a useful for long term and daily tasks.

  • Use written directions with spoken instructions and provide a visual model.
  • Daily routine is vital and introduce to-do lists.
  • Use positive reinforcement to help children stay focussed.
  • Break long tasks into smaller tasks so that each task can be completed. Do not provide too many tasks at one time.

It may be a good idea to have different organised work spaces whether at home or at school where each work station is supplied with a complete set necessary work material. This will reduce the time is lost when a rubber is lost.

Keep methods consistent at school and home. These children thrive on routine.

As with all interventions, understand how an individual with an executive functioning disorder is affected. This is trial and error. If there is no obvious progress try something else. Speak to a professional who may have ideas that have not been tried as yet. Remember that executive functioning disorders is an  invisible disability but can have a significant effect on all aspects of a person’s life.

As a parent, it is very important to work with teachers who have probably identified this disorder already.

What Are Executive Skills?

No matter what your occupation, you are an executive in at least one way. Everyone uses “executive skills.” Whether you’re taking out the recycling bags or preparing an annual report, you need to understand the task, plan the most efficient way to do it, follow through, and sometimes revise or start again.

No one can “execute,” or perform, the many things people need to do without calling on these basic brain functions. If you type “executive skills” (or “executive functioning”) into your favorite search engine, you’ll get hundreds of hits. It’s an unfortunate term, in a way, because it sounds like a class for budding CEOs.

Think of it as an umbrella category for the set of mental processes that your child with learning disabilities probably struggles with, the skills that can have a serious and even profound impact on school success.Executive skills develop gradually and at different rates for different people.

Most children struggle at one time or another with planning, organization, and follow-through. Some will, through maturation, good teaching, and trial and error, independently figure out ways to overcome or compensate for their executive skills weaknesses. Learning disabilities, though, complicate this development.

Children with learning disabilities nearly always have difficulty with one or more executive skills. Descriptions of executive skill weaknesses often overlap descriptions of learning disabilities. And kids with LD will likely have trouble developing these skills on their own.As with other parts of their education, children with LD have a harder time and need more support. Weaknesses in crucial habits of mind can lead to a spiral of failure and low self-esteem.

The good news is that you can help your child recognize, improve, and work around his or her weaknesses in planning and organizational skills once you know what to look for. Weaknesses in executive skills are very likely an important reason why a child with LD can’t seem to get organized, procrastinates endlessly, and seems to undermine himself by doing school work and then not turning it in.

When you understand what executive skills are, you can better support your child’s organizational challenges at home and, in partnership with teachers, at school.

By Bonnie Z. Goldsmith Published: September 8 2010

Executive Skills and AD/HD

If your child has Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD), he or she is sure to have weaknesses in executive skills. Each child has different strengths and challenges, but all children with AD/HD need help with executive skills. Researchers now believe that AD/HD is primarily a disorder of executive skills, rather than of attention. Children with this condition aren’t able to regulate themselves well enough to be able to plan, control impulses, or organize. It’s important to remember that not all children with weak executive skills have AD/HD. However, all children with AD/HD have weaknesses in one or more executive skills — because such weaknesses are part of the definition of AD/HD.

Eight Important Skills

The following eight executive skills are important to help the L.D. child live a more fulfilling life.

1. Impulse Control — Stop and think before acting.

This is a fundamental weakness in many children with AD/HD. A child with weak impulse control says or does things without thinking. They will do what is fun and avoid the drudgery without considering their obligations or commitments. Children with this weakness often speed through schoolwork, sacrificing accuracy and completeness along the way.

Points to consider:

  • interrupt, chatter excessively, talk out of turn
  • leave homework until bedtime
  • make impulsive decisions that interfere with school
  • rush through school work without reading directions
  • following rules inconsistently

2. Emotional Control — Manage feelings by considering goals.

Closely related to impulse control, emotional control helps people keep their eyes on their goal even when painful or unexpected things happen. Children who can’t manage their emotions have trouble accepting criticism. They’re quick to call a situation “unfair.” They overreact to losing a game or getting called on in class. They have difficulty sticking with schoolwork when they are distressed about something.

Points to consider:

  • easily frustrated; quick to give up
  • cannot tolerate corrections or criticism
  • difficulty sitting to do homework
  • problems postponing a favourite activities until homework is done

3. Flexibility — the ability to change strategies or revise plans

When a child is faced with change or a seemingly easy task that becomes complicated, frustration sets in because problem solving is not successful. Difficulties occur when no workable choice can be found.

Points to consider:

  • cannot tolerate a change
  • difficulty with open-ended assignments that require brainstorming/choosing a topic
  • panic with memory work/will not lead to success

4. Working Memory — the ability to hold information in mind and use it to complete a task.

Children with working memory problems are unable to remember and use important information in order to move to the next task. They falter when required to remember a series of directions, give ideas in response to directions, and express ideas.

Points to consider:

  • trouble following directions, particularly orally
  • difficulty with complex, multi-step tasks
  • Does not remember what has just been read or explained
  • trouble taking notes
  • forget the steps eg long division,
  • forget what is needed at school

5. Self-Monitoring — the ability to monitor and evaluate your own performance.

Children who have monitoring difficulties may not realise they are not following directions. They do not understand what they are achieving based on teacher feedback. They can be surprised by poor marks.

Points to consider:

  • Make’ careless’ mistakes in maths
  • trouble proofreading and checking
  • difficulty following directions
  • loses sight of goals
  • skips test questions without noticing
  • cannot monitor time constraints eg in tests

6. Planning and Setting Priorities — the ability to create steps to reach a goal and to make decisions about what to focus on.

Children with planning difficulties become overwhelmed by multi-tasks. They cannot create structure and order in their ideas and lives. Achieving goals are difficult.

Points to consider:

  • come to school unprepared
  • underestimate how much time/ effort a project takes
  • overwhelmed trying to juggle multiple-faceted tasks
  • difficulty identifying the main idea/ important information from what is read/heard

7. Task Initiation — the ability to start without procrastinating.

A child who procrastinates waits till the last minute for everything. They unmotivated and lazy. Many children who have difficulty getting started also have trouble with planning and organising. They get overwhelmed so they don’t do anything.

Points to consider:

  • trouble staring even with directions on where and how to begin
  • find reasons not to begin homework at the agreed-upon time
  • unable to complete multiple assignments
  • difficulty following multi-step routines
  • Hand in late assignments
  • Don’t know where to begin writing

8. Organisation

This skill is linked to skills 6 and 7: planning and setting priorities and task initiation. Children lacking organisational skills lose everything. The consequences they suffer do not necessarily teach them a lesson.eg detention. Children with poor organisational skills may understand the value of organisation but cannot organise themselves.

Points to consider:

  • Don’t hand in completed work
  • have trouble organising their working and living space.
  • come to school without necessary books/stationary
  • arrive late/hand in assignments late
  • inaccurate/ incomplete work
  • As schoolwork gets harder, children need to become more independent learners.
  • Those with weak executive skills fall further and further behind.

How Can I Help My Child?

Parents who work with the child’s teacher can improve their executive skills. Remember that not all children respond to the same strategy .Each child is on a different developmental path and each child’s brain-based habits will vary. You and the teacher should work on the needs of your child. Teach your child these skills, offer frequent reassurance, and give clear, specific feedback.

Consider both short-term and long-term strategies.
Short-term strategies focus on the task and the home environment where it will be done. They help your child become successful on regularly. This, in turn, reduces the risk of depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

Long-term strategies focus on strengthening your child’s executive skills over time so he/ she becomes a successful, independent adult.

Ref: The American Legion Child Welfare Foundation.

Executive Functioning