Executive Functioning

May 9, 2018

What is executive functioning?

Think of executive function as what the chief executive officer of a company must do — analyze, organize, decide, and execute. At different ages a child needs varying levels of help with these tasks but they include being able to do the following.

  1. Analyze a task
  2. Plan how to address the task
  3. Organize the steps needed to carry out the task
  4. Develop timelines for completing the task
  5. Adjust or shift the steps, if needed, to complete the task
  6. Complete the task in a timely way

The following skills are cognitive processes that make up the general term of “executive functioning skills”.  These skills are essential for learning, behavior, and development.  All of these skills work together and impact other areas. This information was compiled with the assistance of information from http://www.theottoolbox.com/.

Emotional Control-A misconception about emotion and executive function is that they two are separate entities. We’ve heard the distinction before, differentiated as matters of the heart and matters of the mind. Our ability to think clearly and put executive function into action is directly related to what we feel and how intensely we feel it. When our emotions are so intense that we become dysregulated, our executive function will not work at full capacity. Emotional dysregulation takes us out of the frontal lobe of the brain, where executive function is housed, and pulls us deep into the brain’s emotional center. In a dysregulated state, the two areas of the brain have difficulty communicating with one another, leaving our emotions in charge.

Task Initiation-Task initiation is one of the many executive functioning skills that can be a big problem for kids.  It happens to all of us.  We procrastinate.  From the youngest toddler to the oldest among us, we all procrastinate in one way or another.  Hey, that stack of bills mixed with junk mail over there on the counter has been calling my name for a couple of weeks now.  But procrastination can be a real issue when it gets out of hand or affects every part of life.  One of the essential skills that make up executive functioning skills is task initiation. Initiating a task, whether it be a preferred activity or one that isn’t so preferred , requires several OTHER executive functioning skills: planning, prioritizing, time management, organization, impulse control, attention, and working memory.  Despite all of these potential areas of task completion breakdown, the biggest issue is often just getting started.

Task Completion-Task completion is a similar skill to task initiation but deals with continuing a task once you have started it.  This is where attention and executive functioning are interlinked. Similar to the initiation of specific tasks, completing a task or project can be a real challenge for the child who is limited in attention.  Reading a multiple chapter book can seem overwhelming and quite difficult and just never is finished.  Cleaning a room can be a big challenge when there are visual, auditory, or other sensory-related distractions that make up the project.

Working Memory-Working Memory is the ability to act on past memories and manipulating the information in a new situation.  Processing short term memories and using it allows us to respond in new situations.  Working memory allows us to learn. Using working memory skills we can use past information in reading in order to read sight words.  We can remember math facts, state capitals, mnemonics, phone numbers, addresses, and friends’ names.  We can then use that information to answer questions based on what we know and apply that information in new situations.

Organization-From visual organization to organizing school work, these organization activities are perfect for the child who struggles to keep their materials in order, needs a more efficient and orderly approach to tasks, or has trouble staying focused to structure or arrange related or connected items.  These organizational difficulties present in the classroom, after school during homework time, or when the child is getting their items together in the morning before beginning their day. A child with attention challenges can easily become disorganized with tools, books, clutter, and trash.  Focusing on a project such as cleaning out a desk or locker is a multiple-step task that might not ever happen without intervention from a teacher or support person.  Organization requires attention to detail and separation of pieces into sections, whether that be folders of a similar subject in school or matching colors of socks.  It’s easy to see how the child with attention issues can get off track very easily with organizational tasks

Self-Monitoring-his executive functioning skill goes hand in hand with attention and focus. Self monitoring allows us to keep ourselves in check in a situation.  We need to stay on task and focus on that a person is saying and respond in appropriate ways.  If the child with attentional issues can not focus on what a person is saying for more than a few minutes, than the ability to respond appropriately can be a real issue.

Impulse ControlSelf control and resisting temptation is a difficult task for many of us.  For kids, it can be quite strenuous.  Just place a bowl of candy in front of a few unsupervised children and see what happens.  The ability to fight urges can be overpowering!  For some kids, however, the struggle with impulses is more than the typical developmental growth that all of us go through as we age and become more in control of our urges.  Some kids lack the ability to identify appropriate responses, problem solve, attend, or self-monitor themselves in activities and tasks.   Attention and impulses are another set of executive functioning skills that are very closely related.  When the distracted child can not focus on a specific task or conversation, or situation, then the tendency to impulsively respond is quite likely.

Self-Talk-Positive self talk can make a big difference for kids!  From seeing that big test in front of them, to walking into a new classroom full of strangers, to gearing up for a big game…kids can become overwhelmed and stressed out from daily tasks.  Teaching kids positive self talk can be a minor tool to use in building confidence, easing anxiety, and helping with attention and focus.

Shift-Switching through processes in order to problem solve or attend to various tasks can be quite difficult for some children.  Being able to figure out what to make a priority and what to stop attending to calls for a lot of problem solving and monitoring skill and may need to be addressed to help your child function.



Help for at Home

These skills combine to form metacognition and behavior regulation (regulation of affect).  Without these skills your child will struggle to complete tasks on a daily basis. Please find the attached ideas to help improve these skills.

Hints and Strategies to Improve Metacognition

  1. Help your child to self-evaluate using checklists.Before your child begins a chore or task, discuss how you both will determine successful completion of the task and develop a checklist together, to determine how effectively the task has been completed. For example, a checklist for evaluating a successfully cleaned bedroom might include items such as: I made my bed; I put my dirty clothes in the laundry basket; I put my toys in the bin; I put my papers in my desk drawer. You and your child should both complete this checklist after having finished the task and discuss why you each rated the items as you did. Be sure to praise your child for accurate self-evaluations and brainstorm ideas for improving accuracy in the future.
  2. Ask your child to try and predict the outcome of a situation.Teach them to think about the different factors and obstacles affecting successful completion of tasks, such as an upcoming science project, a soccer game, or a musical performance. Keep track of these predictions in a journal to serve as a direct reminder for your child, and to be used for later comparisons. After the activity has been completed, discuss your child’s predictions and identify possible reasons for any inaccuracies.
  3. Model self-verbalization skills by expressing your thoughts and problem-solving strategies aloud.This will allow your child to identify otherwise hidden metacognitive strategies. For example, verbalize statements such as the following: “This reminds me of the time when we tried to do this” or “I need to think about what worked and what didn’t work the last time we did this.” Encourage your child to use similar self-instructional strategies to aid in problem-solving tasks, such as the following: putting a puzzle together, solving a math problem, or brainstorming for an art project.
  4. Provide cues to help your child identify and acknowledge their own strengths and weaknesses.This can be done by making a list, collage, or voice recording of his/her strengths and weaknesses. It is important for your child to recognize that although they may have weaknesses in some areas, they has strengths in others. Being able to identify those strengths and weaknesses is important in developing accurate self-perceptions, as well as positive self-esteem.
  5. Have your child explain to you how to succeed at one of his/her favorite videogames or board games.This will allow your child the opportunity to practice reporting how he/she thinks about their step-by-step problem-solving strategies in a game. In many games it is important for players to be able to recognize their current score and how it reflects their performance and capacity within the game. When your child can identify errors of omission and commission in game play, this will allow them to practice identifying strengths and weaknesses.
  6. Use your child’s video game playing as an opportunity to help them reflect on their strategic thinking.A good opportunity would be when your child talks about having “beaten a level.” When this occurs, ask your child to think about how they figured out what to do. Ask your child to also identify the mistakes he/she previously made and to then reflect upon how your child has learned from them. The concept of metacognition revolves around an individual being able to step back and think about their thinking. Help your child to understand that this same type of stepping back and trying to find a new way to “beat a level” is something they can try in many situations at home and at school.
  7. Next time your child asks for something outrageous or asks to do something that is out of the ordinary, do not say “no.”Instead, say “Let’s think about that” and encourage your child to step back, consider what he/she is asking for, and point out the pros and cons of this activity or acquisition. If you determine this request to be unfeasible, encourage your child to formulate an understanding of what your thoughts are and how he/she might be able to otherwise accomplish what he/she is looking to do or have.

Games and Activities That Can Practice Metacognition

“Big Brain Academy” and “Brain Age” – These games offer your child the opportunity to test his/her “brain” abilities and calls for the player to make accurate self-assessments in order to succeed.

“Rock Band” – Games, such as “Rock Band”, which have distinct roles (i.e. drummer, guitarist, singer) will allow for your child to begin to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of themselves and others.

Athletics – Have your child predict how fast he/she can swim a lap of the pool, how high he/she can jump, or how far he/she can kick a soccer ball to practice achieving accurate predictions.

“Chess,” “Checkers,” and “Connect Four “- These types of strategy games allow for a discussion with your child which includes evaluating what kind of approaches were successful and what new approaches you might try when you next play this game.

Programming a cell phone – Have your child help you set different ring tones and/or pictures for people in your phonebook and discuss how this could be useful in identification of a caller.

Observe people interacting at the grocery store or in the mall – While observing strangers, have your child describe her perceptions of these people and then discuss how your child formed this impression (i.e. facial expressions, body language, verbal cues).

Home and School Situations Requiring Regulation of Affect

  • Completing a lengthy or frustrating homework assignment or test
  • Working with classmates on a group project
  • Completing a difficult puzzle or riddle
  • Playing and sharing with siblings or friends
  • Completing a series of chores around the house
  • Reacting appropriately to teacher or parental discipline
  • Accepting an athletic team loss or perceived unfair situation

Hints and Strategies to Improve Regulation of Affect

  1. Model effective strategies for dealing with anger and frustration.Your child can learn how to appropriately express their feelings by observing your behavior. Model appropriate “stopping” behavior or take a “time out.” To properly model this, verbalize your strategy. For example, say, “The computer’s not working, I’m going to walk away for a few minutes, then when I’m calm I’ll come back and figure out how to fix it, call for help. If I allowed myself to get upset about it, I’d probably take it out on somebody, regret that, and still have the computer problems.”
  2. Have your child develop stories or narratives that explain their behaviors.By encouraging your child to talk about their feelings, (for example, “I’m angry because my brothers always tease me when I lose”) your child will often be able to better regulate their expression of feelings. Provide an example from your own experience, such as how you were upset when your boss gave you a large project to do on your way out the door from work, and describe how you handled your frustration. Role-play hypothetical scenarios and discuss various reactions.
  3. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Regularly point out minor issues that could cause stress.For example, the school bus in front of you is stopping every 500 feet and you’re in a hurry, or it is cloudy out when you’ve planned a beach trip. Use expressions such as, “Oh, well” followed by a determination to move forward. This mentality is key to handling emotions and not getting stuck. Engage in discussions with your child to help them move concerns from the “big stuff” to the “small stuff” category.
  4. Work with your child to identify stressful situations ahead of time and encourage him/her to work towards practicing smaller, similar tasks.For example, if your child is extremely self-conscious, you can set gradual and age-appropriate goals to increase their ability to take on new challenges. These could include tasks such as calling friends and relatives on the phone, ordering food at a restaurant, or applying for a job.
  5. Use your child’s video game play or introduction to a new digital technology as an opportunity to talk about frustration.Many children become visibly angry at their video games or video game consoles when they are sent back to the beginning of the game or cannot solve the problem. Similarly, they may experience some initial frustration when learning how to use a new cell-phone or setting up preferences on an iPod/iPhone. Interestingly, the same children who may be more willing to go back and try to resolve these problems with video games and digital technologies may be rigid about doing the same with their homework. Use this as an opportunity to have a discussion with your child about the strategies, self thoughts, and approaches that she is using to overcome frustration with technologies and encourage him/her to redouble their efforts to overcome these obstacles.
  6. Do not be afraid to show your own frustrations; just be sure to not overdo it.Frustration and disappointment are a part of life and real-world modeling of this can be helpful. Use strategies such as self-talk, acceptance of situations that have not turned out how you would have liked them to, and “letting go.” Demonstrating that you are upset but are coping effectively can be extremely valuable for children to observe. Talking about a previously frustrating and disappointing experience and how you were able to move on from it may be helpful as well.
  7. Watch home videos with your child of when they were younger to illustrate how much they have matured.This is often an opportunity for children to engage in some reflection about interests, behaviors, and verbalization that they would consider to be immature. Because the video is of your child when they were much younger, it is less threatening to discuss the need for improvement in her regulation of her feelings.

Games and Activities That Can Practice Regulation of Affect

“Dance Dance Revolution” (DDR) and Guitar Hero – DDR enhances regulation of affect because it is a fast-paced dancing game and players must fight frustration in order to be successful. Like DDR, “Guitar Hero” is a fast-paced guitar simulation game that requires players to follow button combinations, which can be very frustrating.

“Charades” and “Cranium” – These games allow your child to work together with their team to achieve a goal. Having other team members model the appropriate behaviors for both success and failure will assist your child in practicing these responses.

Team and Individual Sports – Many sports, such as swimming, baseball, and lacrosse, can be frustrating to children initially. this offers them the opportunity to practice dealing with their frustration. Also, similar to “Charades” and “Cranium,” team sports can allow your child to observe and imitate teammates’ appropriate reactions to failures and successes.

Learning to play an instrument – Playing an instrument for the first time can be a frustrating experience and will require your child to exhibit regulation of emotions in order to successfully master the instrument.

“Jenga” and “Villa Paletti” – Games, such as “Jenga” and “Villa Paletti,” will challenge its players to keep a tower standing upright, while each player takes turns removing pieces. This type of game can allow your child to practice monitoring their emotions to their own play, as well as their reactions to the playing of others.


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