Executive function skills are a set of cognitive skills that are required by everybody to lead a normal life. Executive functioning skills are the critical processes of our brain that help us in finishing our tasks and meeting our objectives.
Therefore, we use executive function skills for almost everything that we do in our lives and if there are any executive functioning issues, it negatively impacts our learning ability, sense of time, and objectivity.
In this article, we will briefly discuss what are executive functioning skills, types of executive function skills, signs of executive dysfunction, and cover in-depth the strategies to improve executive function skills.
What are Executive Function Skills?
Executive function skills are those mental skill sets that are required and highly necessary for managing behaviors and self-regulation. These skills include working memory, time management skills, planning, organization, self-control, attention, flexibility or adaptive thinking, task initiation, metacognition, and perseverance.
All these skills are highly important to lead a balanced and normal life as these skills help people to pick up instructions, follow directions, control their emotions, stay focused, and achieve their personal goals.
The system of executive functions can be considered as a management system of our brains. They do not just help us stay focused and organized in our life but also, assists us in managing tasks and achieving our objectives.
Types of Executive Functioning Skills
There are many different types of executive functions. Each type of skill has an important role to play independently, as well as in conjunction with each other so that the final outcome of behavior or action is smooth, organized, and well-facilitated by other brain functions.
Some of the basic types of executive functioning are as follows:
Adaptable Thinking or Flexibility
This skill gives a child the ability to think of alternatives and solve problems accordingly. Instead of thinking that there is one way to do something, they can think of different ways and consider the consequences to find the best solution.
This skill is necessary for a child to assess the future in terms of creating a plan of action, prioritizing the objectives, and assessing the hurdles. Proper planning is a strong sign of cognitive development among children.
This is another important skill set required by a child to comprehend their own development or self-evaluate their own progression in terms of performance or completion of specific tasks.
This skill requires children to be self-aware of their own behaviors and actions.
Self-control or Impulse Control
Another critical skill required by children is to have a restraining ability from emotional or physical outbursts.
This can be a challenging thing for many kids, especially those who have trouble with emotional regulation.
This set of skills gives a child the ability to hold information temporarily. This is particular important in the classroom environment where the teacher gives instructions to the class. The student is required to remember this instruction and execute it in a timely manner.
The skillset of time management is important for a child as it governs their ability to plan a schedule, complete a specific task on time, and be patient throughout the process until and unless the task is completed.
Organization skills are important as they enhance a child’s ability to arrange things efficiently and keep their belongings in an orderly manner.
This skill makes a child determined and increases their ability to stay focused and pay their full attention to the tasks at hand.
This can be particularly challenging for children who have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Signs of Executive Function Issues
Now we know that the collective role of executive functioning is that of a conductor in an orchestra. It manages, directs, arranges, and integrates all the functions of our brain so that all the actions and tasks in our daily life are not just taken care of smoothly but also, precisely and systematically.
Each of the executive functions works independently as well as together in various combinations and therefore, if any one of the skill is impaired, the ripple effect is felt in all areas of life.
When there are any issues with executive functioning skills, the symptoms in a child can look similar to the symptoms of ADHD as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a type of problem that typically stems from executive dysfunction.
Individuals who have difficulty in the department of executive functioning skills might show the following symptoms:
- Struggle to start and/or complete a task
- Difficulty in prioritizing tasks
- Loss of memory in terms of forgetting what they just read or heard
- Difficulty in following directions or climbing down a sequence of steps
- Extreme panic when there is a change in regular routine or rules
- Difficulty in switching from one task to the other
- Intense emotional excitement
- Strong fixation on certain things
- Difficulty in keeping track of one’s personal belongings
- Constant struggle in keeping things organized
- Frequent trouble in completing tasks on time or managing time
It’s important to remember that all the aforementioned difficulties could contribute to a child’s learning ability and development. If your child shows any or some of these symptoms of executive function, it does not mean that they are lazy or unintelligent compared to other kids.
Like all skills, children require teachers and parents to teach them these skills. Some children with EF challenges require more explicit teaching and specific strategies.
Therefore, they need your love, care, and support to strengthen executive functioning skills.
Strategies to Improve Executive Functions in a Child
Let us look at some of the strategies which we can implement to help our children and students have strong executive function skills.
We have segregated the strategies as per the skills so that you know exactly what to do for your child if they show weakness in any specific area.
A well-thought-out strategy before commencing with a task is known as planning. Your child needs to have this critical ability as it will help them in saving their valuable time and utilizing their effort much more efficiently.
Strategies to Help in Planning
- Make a to-do list for your child and them to complete it daily
- Ask your child to start the day by writing a daily schedule
- Give your child some graphic organizers that will help them plan their writing before starting
- Start playing the game of chess with your child as the game will enhance the planning capabilities
- For high school students, develop a SMART Goals sheet and complete it with your child daily to give them encouragement
When you develop and maintain a system that keeps track of all your plans, materials, and deadlines, it is called working in an organized fashion. This is critical for your child as you do not want them to be disorganized and restless.
Strategies to Help Being Organized
- Make your child use a planner or a calendar to write on important dates. For more tech-savvy families, you can even use online planners like Google Calendar.
- Help your child set up a homework binder so that they can keep track of the materials
- Color code different subjects with corresponding colored books.
- Ask your child to spend a few minutes every day organizing their desks or playing area
- Practice putting back materials into their original spaces with your child after they are being used
The ability to start working on a task independently is known as task initiation. This skill is important for your child as it improves the processes of self-regulation.
Strategies to Help in Task Initiation
- Encourage your child to have a ‘rocket ship countdown’ before jumping on to a task
- Ask your child to set a timer before starting a task
- Get your child in the habit of exercising before commencing with a task
- Practice self-talk sessions with your child before getting started
The ability to work efficiently within a set time limit is known as good time management. Your child needs to have this skill or otherwise, they will soon tend to lose interest and patience in the middle of a long task.
Strategies to Help in Time Management
- Divide long-term tasks into mini-milestones with shorter time limits
- Help your child practice using a visual timer while working on tasks
- Give your child regular time checks during tasks
- Ask your child to write down their daily tasks with the time taken to complete them
- Have a discussion with your child about the benefits of time management
Working memory is the ability of your child to remember information and use it in situations where the need arises. If your child is having executive functioning issues in this department, they may often forget instructions that were just said to them.
Strategies to Help in Working Memory
- Ask your child to practice mathematical calculations mentally
- Play brain games with your child
- Teach your child the methods of memorizing information through visualization
- Break large information into smaller chunks of information so that your child can remember them easily
- Always encourage your child to write things down rather than storing them in their memory
When an individual has self-awareness about their own thinking, it is a sign of proper development of metacognition. This is an important skill for your child as weakness in this department will make the child unaware of their own progression or awareness.
Strategies to Help in Metacognition
- Ask your child to ‘think loudly’ while reading out a text
- Give your child the freedom to self-assess one’s own mistakes by giving them the space to explain why they think they have done a mistake
- Before learning about a new thing, ask your child to write what they already know
- Always do a quick revision before starting a new assignment
Self-control is the ability to regulate one’s own thoughts, physical behaviors, and emotional outbursts. This skill is highly important for your child or otherwise, they will lack in the area of impulse control.
Strategies to Help in Self-control
- Teach your child various coping mechanisms to manage stress
- Practice breathing techniques and mindfulness with your child
- Use a feeling check-in chart to teach your child about emotional awareness
- Encourage students in ‘what to do’ thought patterns while reading a story
- Play games of self-control such as Simon Says or Freeze with your child
Adaptive Thinking or Flexibility
The ability of your child to switch from one task to another depending on the situation is known as flexibility or adaptive thinking. If your child lacks in this area of executive skills they will struggle when faced with tough situations.
Strategies to Help in Adaptive Thinking
- Teach students or your child about perspective using stories and literature
- Discuss real-life problems and encourage your child’s problem-solving thoughts
- Use optical illusions to teach about perspective
- Make changes to the daily routine of your child and see how they react
The ability of an individual to stay determined and work until a task is fully completed is known as perseverance. This skill is important for your child as it will help them push to the finish line even if the circumstances are difficult.
Strategies to Help in Perseverance
- Develop a SMART Goals schedule and ask your child to follow it regularly
- Ask your child to practice positive self-talk during difficult tasks
- Teach your child confidence-building strategies
- Encourage your child to work independently on tasks
- Encourage your child to problem solve on their own before coming to you
The development of executive functioning skills is crucial for your child as it will help them immensely in their academics, social life, and future endeavors.
There are many different executive functioning skills such as working memory, metacognition, self-control, adaptive thinking, and perseverance.
While some children may develop these skills naturally, others may need a little help. As a parent and teacher, you can encourage the development of these skills in your child through various activities and strategies. The most important thing is to be patient and supportive while your child develops these skills.
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News. Hill Learning Center. (2019, April 12). Retrieved May 12, 2022, from https://www.hillcenter.org/7-executive-functioning-skills-your-child-should-have/#:~:text=Executive%20functioning%20skills%20facilitate%20the,%2C%20time%20management%2C%20and%20organization.
pathway2success. (2021, September 22). 10 executive functioning skills: The ultimate guide. The Pathway 2 Success. Retrieved May 12, 2022, from https://www.thepathway2success.com/10-executive-functioning-skills-the-ultimate-guide/