Executive Functions are a collection of processes or interrelated functions responsible for guiding, directing, managing cognition, emotions, and behavior, particularly in novel problem solving situations1. The fact that Executive Functions may be improved by means of cognitive training is of particular importance in childhood and adolescence, because Executive Functioning is a strong predictor for various life outcomes, such as academic attainment, socioeconomic status, and physical health2. Read on to learn more about these crucial brain skills, how the brain develops, and what parents and teachers can do to help students strengthen their Executive Functioning skills.
WHAT IS EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONING?
Executive Functioning refers to purposeful, organized, strategic, self-regulated, goal-directed behavior. Executive Function skills within the brain direct and cue mental processes that we use to think, feel, perceive, and act3. It’s the directive capacity of the human brain4.
Working memory, processing speed, and attention make up the automatic processing center in the brain. This part of the brain comprises approximately eighty-percent of a person’s cognitive effort. Some call Executive Functions the “gatekeeper skills”, as they are constantly filtering the information that your eyes and ears are constantly receiving. These are complex cognitive processes that control flexible, goal-directed behavior and the coordination of numerous sub-processes and skills5.
IT ALL STARTS IN THE BRAIN
Brains are built over time, with the brain encountering rapid growth until about 5-6 years of age. Eighty-percent of the brain is developed by age 3 and ninety-percent by age 5. Then, from adolescence to young adulthood, the brain goes through a pruning process, removing neurons and connections that are not in use. Practice and repetition promote stronger and permanent connections in the brain.
Brain development and the development of Executive Functions vary, as it depends on various factors, including complications during pregnancy or birth, proper nutrition, trauma, neglect, parenting style, COVID, and more. Executive skills do not develop evenly, and both nature and nurture play an important role. Kids do not learn by “absorbing” and observing alone; learning is a more complex process.
THE ROLE OF NATURE VS. NURTURE IN BRAIN DEVELOPMENT
Nature refers to the hereditary passing down of characteristics, traits, and behavior from our parents through our genes. The “blueprint” for brain development begins before birth and is dictated by genes. During fetal brain development, by the time the neural tube closes, around week 7, the brain will grow at a rate of 250,000 neurons per minute for the next 21 weeks! Genetics play a big role in brain development.
Nurture refers to the influences of the environment that shape us to be who we are. The brain is a social organ that develops through relationships. In fact, the brain is the only organ not fully-developed by birth. Instead, it develops through face-to-face social interactions, especially during the first three years of life. A child’s best “toy” or playmate is the parent. Parent-child interaction is brain “food” and the foundation for all learning.
STRESS AND BRAIN DEVELOPMENT
As the brain continues to develop, stressors play an important role as well, whether positive or negative. Positive stress includes common, routine life events that may cause a temporary increase in our stress level from which we quickly recover, such as facing an upcoming test, the anticipation of meeting new people, learning to ride a bike, getting immunizations at the doctor’s office, or attending the first day of school.
On the converse, negative stress ranges from tolerable to toxic. Tolerable negative stress is a significant level of stress that lasts longer and takes more effort to recover from than positive stress. Examples could include the loss of a loved one or pet or experiencing a natural disaster. Going further, toxic negative stress is brought about by prolonged, traumatic life events that occur for an extended period of time in a child’s life without the protection of an adult. Examples include extreme poverty, abuse or neglect, parental mental illness, domestic violence, or parental incarceration.
Toxic stress causes the fear center of the brain to significantly increase in size. The affected child can develop symptoms very similar to post-traumatic stress disorder. Toxic stress decreases the size and impairs the functioning of the regions of the brain responsible for learning, memory, and executive functions. As a result, the child is at risk of experiencing learning and behavior problems.
THE ELEVEN EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONS
With a better understanding of brain development and the effects of nature, nurture, and stress, it’s apparent that brain functioning is a complicated process. Indeed, the Executive Functions of the brain operate less like a single orchestra conductor and more like a board of Directors, with a series of networks between the controlling frontal lobe and other parts of the brain. Executive Functions cue the use of other brain capacities, such as reasoning, language, and memories, and then direct the processes we use to perceive, feel, think, and act.
There are a total of eleven Executive Functions, listed here in order of development and progression: Response Inhibition, Working Memory, Emotional Control, Sustained Attention, Task Initiation, Flexibility, Planning/Prioritizing, Organization, Time Management, Goal-directed Persistence, and Metacognition. More detailed information about each of these functions, as well as exercises to enhance each function, is included below.
1. Response Inhibition: This is the capacity to think before you act, to resist the urge to say or do something before you have time to evaluate the situation and the impact of one’s behavior. It is arguably the most important of the Executive Functions, as it provides the capacity to resist temptation and peer pressure and to make good choices. A child at the mercy of his or her impulses cannot initiate, sustain attention, manage time, plan, or organize in an effective way. There is a natural disruption in this function during adolescence, when teenagers engage in context-dependent behavior, meaning that they get wrapped up in the moment and become high-sensation seekers.
Learning to wait is the foundation for Response Inhibition. To develop this function, parents can encourage their child to practice waiting and delay the reward or gratification. Tactics such as “First-Then” schedules can help: “First do your homework; then you can play games.” Parents can also encourage children to ask themselves, “Is this a good choice or bad choice?”
2. Working Memory: Two different but related skills affect working memory, which is the “bridge” between short-term and long-term memory: the ability to hold information in your mind while performing complex tasks and the ability to draw from past learning or experience and apply it to the situation at hand or to predict future outcomes. Like a kitchen, working memory includes the counter space, ie. holding information; taking out and putting back the ingredients, ie. storing and recalling information; and preparing the food, ie. manipulating information.
When an individual has weak working memory, visual and auditory information can be forgotten too quickly. Without enough repetition, the information never gets stored in long-term memory, slowing the process of building pathways between the visual, auditory, and critical thinking parts of the brain. For instance, in order for reading to become fluid and automatic, it is critical to strengthen working memory.
What can families do to build working memory? Play games! Great memory games options, where the child needs to remember the rules and steps, include Battleship, Chess, Crazy Eight, UNO, Go Fish, Puzzles, Memory, and Simon/Simon Online. There are many apps available, and interactive car games are great too, such as Simon Says, Telephone, 20 Questions, and I Spy. For older students, using visual reminders such as colored markers to highlight important information, setting reminders with time and sound cues, making checklists, and breaking tasks into small steps are all helpful tips.
3. Emotional Control: The ability to manage your emotions in order to control behavior and complete tasks is referred to as Emotional Control. To be able to recover quickly from disappointment and manage anxiety to motivate instead of procrastinate, as well as self-regulate positive and negative emotions are all tied to this Executive Function. It is important that children build an emotional vocabulary, learning to label their feelings and then let them go. Children should also have their feelings validated, not dismissed, and be reminded of past successes. In the heat of the moment, empower your child to be able to assert their need to walk away from the upsetting situation, compose their emotions, and then return when calm. Parents, praise your children when you recognize that your child is remaining “cool and collected” during a possibly stressful situation.
4. Sustained Attention: The capacity to keep paying attention to a situation despite distractions, feeling tired, or bored by the task at hand demonstrates attentional control. The ability to focus attention on a stimulus in the environment and ignore others is aligned with Working Memory (using what we know to make decisions), Emotional Control (regulating our behavior), and Cognitive Flexibility (shifting focus between different stimuli in the environment).
There are different types of attention needed: focused, sustained, divided (rapid shifting), spatial, and attentional capacity (mental energy). To help children increase their Sustained Attention, help your child set realistic goals for different tasks, allow breaks during chores/homework, teach your child to gather all needed materials before starting a task, and build in rewards for completing tasks.
5. Task Initiation: In order to master the critical skill of getting started on a task with minimal procrastination and in a timely and efficient manner, parents can help by breaking tasks into manageable chunks, informing children of the project start time and the minimum work time, and implementing routines.
6. Planning/Prioritizing: This Executive Function includes both the ability to know what steps are needed to reach a goal or complete a task, as well as the ability to focus on what’s important and then prioritize the steps to achieve the goal. Take time each day to review the day’s agenda with your child, teach the concept of “urgent” versus “important”, and write down what you need your child to do, labeling the actions as most, less, and least important.
7. Flexibility: To be able to change or revise a plan, children need to build their mental flexibility. Notice the physical signs of inflexibility, such as muscle tightness or changes in breathing, and, in the moment, ask your child to think of ways to do things differently. Help them visualize the process and the result.
8. Organization: This is the ability to keep track of information and materials, as well as possessing the capacity to create and maintain systems for ongoing organization. To enhance this capacity, allow moments for “organization breaks” throughout the day. To help, everything should have a place, and children should be given checklists of steps to follow.
9. Time Management: Children who lack a sense of time or urgency are faced with the challenge of building their Time Management skills - estimating how much time one has, how to use your time wisely, how to keep to a deadline, etc. How can parents help? Encourage your child to use a planner (digital is fine!). Help your child estimate how much time a task will take and then check if the estimation was right. Teach your child how to map out larger projects and break them down into smaller, more manageable pieces. Use a calendar to determine when each mini-task will need to be completed, and place the benchmark goals on the calendar.
Remember, organizing thoughts can be as difficult as organizing time and materials. Concept maps and graphic organizers are helpful tools for students. Teachers should provide opportunities for students to review previous learning, which could include a quick oral presentation or pairing students for a brief recall session, where they share what they remember from the previous day. Recalling information is essential for the creation of permanent learning.
10. Goal-directed Persistence: The capacity to set goals and stick with them without getting distracted or discouraged is akin to a “giant” version of sustained attention. By helping students to create short-term, attainable goals or to make daily study plans, teachers and parents can help students build this skill.
11. Metacognition: Sometimes referred to as “thinking about thinking,” metacognition is the ability to understand your own thoughts. By possessing the ability to self-monitor and self-evaluate, children can make more informed decisions about how to act in the future. Helpful tactics might include checklists, having your child gather all needed material for studying/for a project together, helping your child reflect on performance and process, or having your child repeat instructions or share their reflection verbally. Use language specific language that helps guide your child’s focus, for instance, “I see that you are missing a pencil to complete the assignment. Where could you find a pencil in the house?”
EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONS AND ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT
There is widespread agreement that the skills related to Executive Functions are essential for academic achievement since changes to these skills decrease the likelihood of success6. This is slightly higher in relation to mathematics versus language arts. A typical breakdown of achievable developmental tasks, by grade level, is outlined below.
Kindergarten-Grade 2 Developmental Tasks:
Bring papers to and from school
Complete homework assignments (20 minutes maximum)
Inhibit behaviors: follow safety rules, uses proper vocabulary for the age, raise hand before speaking in class, keep hands to self
Able to tidy own bedroom and playroom.
Grade 3-5 Developmental Tasks:
Perform chores that take 15-30 minutes long eg. vacuuming, dusting
Keep track of belongings at home and when away from home
Complete homework assignments (1 hour maximum)
Keep track of changing schedule (different activities after school)
Self-regulate: behaves when the teacher is out of the classroom, refrains from rude or inappropriate comments
Grade 6-8 Developmental Tasks:
Use systems to organize schoolwork, including assignments, notebooks, locker, etc.
Follow complex school schedule involving changing teachers and changing schedules
Plan and carry out long-term projects, including tasks to be completed and reasonable timeline to follow; may require to plan multiple projects simultaneously
Grade 9-12 Developmental Tasks:
Manage school work effectively on a day-to-day basis, including completing and handing in assignments on time, studying for tests, creating and following timelines for long term projects, and making adjustments in effort, and quality of work in response to feedback from teachers and others
Establish and reassess long-term goals and make plans for meeting those goals
A WORD ABOUT EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONS AND ADHD
By definition, ADHD - attention deficit hyperactivity disorder - is an executive functioning disorder. ADHD is particularly focused on attention, sustained attention, response inhibition, organization, planning, and emotional regulation. Individuals with ADHD have a combination of Executive Functioning deficits, but not all students with Executive Functioning deficits have ADHD.
Goal setting, self talk and visualization are essential for the development of executive skills. Some easy ways to help students improve Executive Function include posting a daily schedule; providing clear and consistent routines and procedures; providing visual support, such as posters with problem-solving steps or routines; color-coding schedules and folders; highlighting key words and ideas in texts; minimizing clutter; and creating clearly-defined areas in the classroom. By offering environmental support, parents and teachers can create a space where children can thrive. Working through these skills with your children will empower them to succeed in the classroom, in college, and in life (or their future adult lives).
Jocelyn Sotomayor is the middle school counselor for Mount Paran Christian School. She is also a certified Executive Functioning coach.
For more information about academics at Mount Paran Christian School, including directed and advanced studies, click here. To learn more about Executive Functioning, click to watch the entire ParentEd. session.