Executive functions are the higher level cognitive (thinking) skills that control and regulate the other thinking processes.
They are important because they ORGANISE all the other thinking skills. Bright, intelligent people who have poor executive functions find it very hard to live fully functional lives. When executive functions don’t work well, it could be likened to trying to run new computer software on an old operating system.
The executive functions are controlled by the frontal lobe of the brain. The development of executive functions depends on early well-developed language learning and auditory processing skills, including auditory memory (being able to remember what is heard).
Implications of poor executive functioning
Executive functions are essential for day-to-day living. Young children are not expected to have well-developed executive functions but they do need to be able to cope with activities of daily living and school academic learning.
Poor executive functioning impacts on learning, including literacy, as well as communication and socialisation. Children with poor executive functions are often anxious.Many tasks in the classroom involve working memory, including multitasking. Reading, writing and spelling require a high level of multitasking.
The brain needs to hold on to information long enough to use it. Processing speed is usually a significant factor and this impacts on learning and on producing output.
Inhibiting is about impulse control, being able to wait. Children with poor inhibiting act or listen impulsively, interrupt and are easily distracted. It is just as important to be able to shift focus easily when needed and move smoothly from one task to another. Children who can’t shift easily are rigid, often insist on routines or on doing things their way and become agitated or emotional if asked to change.
Emotional control is difficult. It is hard for children to problem solve when they over-react.Planning and organising needs a great deal of support. Morning routines and homework can be exhausting for everyone.
Children with poor initiating skills can’t work out where to start or what to do next. They often delay before answering questions or comments, take a long time to make choices and procrastinate.
Children with executive dysfunction often don’t understand abstract language and take things literally.Self-monitoring is about being mindful and noticing when we need to change what we are doing. Children with poor self-monitoring don’t notice when they fail to communicate effectively. They might spell and punctuate erratically, and not pick up on the little nonverbal cues that are essential for high level social skills.
It is possible to change and develop the pathways in the brain that are responsible for all these key executive functions, making your child happier and more successful.