improving executive function
Does your child, teen or young adult require an unreasonable amount of time to complete homework or school projects? Is it a challenge for him to keep his bedroom, locker or work space organized? Does she often miss instructions? Is he able to manage his time or does he spend the night before an assignment is due scrambling to complete it? Is it hard for her to complete chores or learn and follow routines? Does he forget his backpack or gym clothes? If so, your loved one might need some extra help with executive functioning skills.
We are here to help your child learn explicit strategies to develop these important skills through training and practice. We help our patients to learn to break down tasks into manageable steps, visualize and understand task demands and expectations, learn about and understand “time robbers” and “time savers,” and use internal and external strategies to remain on task, organized, and on the right track. We also support caregivers in ways to properly execute EF strategies and decrease the amount of cueing and direct support provided to their loved one. With mastery of EF strategies, our patients have demonstrated better independence and self-efficacy. Our parents and caregivers report that they feel less like supervisors, cajoling and directing their child, teen or young adult through each and every step of a task.
about executive function
Executive function (EF) begins to develop in infants and continues to develop into early adulthood. Executive functioning encompasses an interrelated set of skills that are integral to our ability to complete goal directed actions. EF can be thought of as the CEO of our brain! These skills include controlling impulses and emotions, working memory, focus, task initiation, planning/prioritization, organization, time management, self regulation, self-awareness, shifting attention, and flexible thinking. They are the self-regulating skills that we all use to accomplish tasks, from getting dressed to doing homework.
There is a strong relationship between executive functioning skills and academic participation. When an individual has difficulty with executive functioning, she may not be able to follow rules or establish a routine. Keeping an organized room, backpack and desk can be really hard. Controlling emotions may also be tricky. Sustaining attention in class, completing deskwork at home or school, and solving problems may be super difficult. Facing unexpected challenges or changes in the schedule may be next to impossible.
Learn more about some executive function skills below:
Working memory is an executive function which plays a role in how we understand, use, and remember information during our day-to-day tasks.
Previously used interchangeably with the term “short-term memory” research now suggest that working memory is a type of memory all its own. Used specifically when the task you are doing involves mental manipulation of information, working memory lasts slightly longer and can be considered like a mental note pad or scratch paper that holds your immediate thoughts as you work to solve a problem. Importantly, items placed in your working memory are typically not available for recall once you are no longer thinking about them (unlike long-term memory).
Remembering a phone number or item not on the grocery list, or the third step in a three-step task (e.g. sit down, take out your homework, and turn to page 28) are all examples of working memory. Children with learning disabilities or attention deficits have difficulty with working memory because they are already using more space on their mental scratch paper. Things that might be simple for other children to filter out take up space in their working memory, leading to difficulty staying focused or completing what seemed like a simple task.
Planning and Prioritization
Planning is the ability is develop a mental plan or “road-map” of the steps needed in order to achieve a goal.
Prioritization is the ability to assign values to represent the importance of tasks.
Proper prioritization helps children develop efficient plans based off of decisions regarding what tasks to do first based on their urgency and relevance. For example when brushing your teeth it is important to prioritize application of toothpaste FIRST, or the rest of the steps fail to achieve the goal. Building a LEGO set is another example of a task that requires proper planning and prioritization (even with the direction booklet).
Children with ADD/ ADHD often have difficulty with these steps in particular.
Organization is the ability to structure and arrange information in an efficient manner in order to achieve a goal.
Categorizing information to break big tasks down into small steps, time management, and the ability to manage limited resources are all examples of organization in day to day life.
Classic games such as monopoly, or pay day are great examples of resource management which rely on this important executive function.
Inhibition is the ability to suppress or control impulsive decisions, behaviors, or distractors in order to achieve a goal.
Emotional regulation, impulse control, and staying focused are examples of how inhibition might be used daily.
In addition to sensory over-responsivity which may be occuring, a child who can NOT seem to ignore certain inputs, or who appears to do “the first thing that pops into their heads,” are all having trouble with this executive function.
Additionally children with difficulty managing inhibition may display poor safety awareness, which can become an emergency situation at times. Therapy to improve executive functions may help.
Shifting / Flexibility
Shifting / Flexibility refers to the ability to adapt, adjust, or otherwise change your stratagy, plans, or thinking in response to new information.
Mental flexibility is a foundational skill in good decision making, and problem solving. At Giant leaps we encourage all of our students become “creative problem solvers” whenever a difficult circumstance presents itself.
Children who have difficulty transitioning to from preferred activities, or who use (or fail to use) the same strategy / tactic on a problem even though it is not working, are struggling with flexibility as an executive function.
Initiation (just like it sounds) is the ability to independently get started, or initiate action on tasks.
This includes things like being able to start a task or project without being told or requiring constant supervision. Also included under this term is the ability to break large tasks into smaller ones, set goals, and “self-start” on tasks without the need for external reinforcers.
Children who seem to get “stuck” when faced with a problem during a routine task, or who seem to avoid getting started on unfamiliar tasks may be struggling with initiation. Importantly, Initiation is also a part of “Praxis” which is a foundational part of motor planning and being able to complete novel or complex motor actions.
Emotional control refers to the ability to manage / regulate one’s emotions across various situations.
This includes things like having good awareness of one’s own emotional state, the ability to identify feelings on others and one’s self, stress management, impulse management, and even one’s ability to show empathy for others.
A child who seems to have LARGE emotional reactions that are not in proportion with what caused them, or who cannot seem to “calm down” after something distressing happens (even after a long time; minutes or sometimes hours), is struggling with emotional control.
At Giant Leaps we utilize the Zones of Regulation curriculum in order to help students learn and develop all aspects of emotional control from identifying how you are feeling, to managing impulses for maladaptive behavior and replacing them with positive “Tools to Try.”
Self-monitoring usually refers to the ability to observe and regulate one’s own thoughts and behaviors in the moment.
The self awareness needed to anticipate what types of challenges might be difficult for a child is a key component that makes up self-monitoring. Evaluating their performance on a task accurately, reflecting on what they could have done better, and then integrating feedback passed along in order to improve their next try are all examples of self-monitoring.
A child who seems to have no awareness of a “bad” performance, or who often seems to refuse help (even when it is clearly needed and despite poor current performance) may be having difficulty with self-monitoring.
. . . the impact of executive functioning
When children begin to notice that tasks involving mental capacities are more difficult for them than others, they may lose self-esteem. In addition, these children may come to feel that trying is just too hard, and some may refuse to participate in new or unfamiliar games / activities that look “too hard”.
Similar to gross motor refusal the individuals response may be subtle. They may simply say they do not like these activities or they may avoid participating in games and activities which require significant executive functioning by repeatedly playing a game which requires a different skill set. This then leads to less opportunities to practice or improve upon the skill they feel they are lacking, which leads to reduced development of skill. A negative feedback cycle which only ends with a child who does not believe they are capable – the wrong conclusion.
At Giant Leaps how a child feels about themselves is at the heart of everything we do. Building a therapeutic plan that fosters self-esteem and self compassion, while building underlying skills needed to be successful is what allows therapists at Giant Leaps to break this negative feedback loop.
As children get older, demands in both school and at home increase. More responsibilities are hallmarks of successful entry into pre-teen and teenage years, and beyond. To see your child succeed at managing responsibilities is to know that they are prepared for anything that life may throw at them.
This begins with fostering executive function skills to become a successful adult.
At Giant Leaps, we know successful transition to adulthood to be the impact of executive functioning.