Executive Functioning: What Is Executive Function?

Schoolboy writing in exercise book in class
Table of Contents

What Is Executive Function?

Executive function can be defined as a set of vital mental skills that include flexible thinking, self-control, and working memory. These skills are used every day to learn, stay on task, and manage daily life.

Difficulty with executive function, also known as executive dysfunction, can create problems for your child at home or at school.

Children and adults with certain conditions, like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), can be more prone to executive functioning issues.

How Executive Functioning Develops With Age

Executive functioning is complex and is expected to develop gradually over time. However, some children struggle with one or more aspects of executive functioning. There are specific milestones for executive function tasks specific to a child’s age.

Research suggests that difficulties with executive functioning are often first noticed in the preschool and early primary school years when demands on these skills begin to increase.

There are many factors that can influence the development of executive functioning, including genetics, environment, and brain development.

For example, children with ADHD often demonstrate problems with executive function, which likely relates to differences in brain activity in areas associated with these skills.

Despite these challenges, there are many effective strategies and interventions that can help individuals with deficits in executive functions to manage these important cognitive skills.

Whether it is through physical exercise, therapy sessions, or targeted learning programs, there are many tools that can help your child stay focused, and organized, and improve their problem solving and other executive function problems.

Executive Functions in Different Ages

Side view of schoolboy doing homework with math

As discussed earlier, skills related to executive functioning are extremely important for the growth of a child.

This development generally begins in early childhood where children are expected to focus in class, start to engage in problem solving, follow directions, and control some impulsive actions.

As children start to develop and become more independent, they are expected to do more things by themselves without the help of an adult. These skills continue to develop. However, they may also be expected to learn additional skills such as emotional regulation, impulse control, and develop mental flexibility.

When they go into high school, high school students continue to navigate social and emotional situations, need to learn organization, and develop planning skills (e.g. create checklists, plan assessments using a timetable etc.).

Types of Skills Related to Executive Functioning

Here are some skills related to exectuive function to look out for in your child:

Attentional Control

Attentional control helps children focus on a task and ignore distractions. This is important for children to be able to pay attention in class, finish their homework, and avoid making mistakes.

Children who have good attentional control are often able to block out distractions and stay on task for longer periods of time. This allows them to better retain information and complete tasks more efficiently.

Sustained Attention

Sustaining attention is important for children to be able to focus on a task. Sustained attention is the ability to maintain focus on a task for an extended period of time. This is important for children to be able to retain information and complete school activities and tasks more efficiently.

Children who are good at sustaining attention are often able to block out distractions and stay on task for longer periods of time. This allows them to better retain information and complete tasks more efficiently.

Emotional Control

little boy angry and sitting on a bench

Emotional control refers to a child’s ability to manage their emotions and stay calm in stressful situations. This is important for children to be able to think clearly and make rational decisions.

Children with great ability to control their emotions are less likely to get upset or frustrated when things don’t go their way. They are also more likely to be able to think clearly in challenging situations and come up with creative solutions.

Goal-Directed Persistence

Goal-directed persistence is a child’s ability to stick with a task even when it is difficult or challenging. This is important for children to be able to see a task through to completion.

Children with good goal-directed persistence are often able to overcome obstacles and persevere even when things get tough. This allows them to learn more effectively and retain information better.

Self-Monitoring

Self-monitoring comprises a child’s ability to comprehend or self-evaluate how efficiently they are being able to perform a particular task or a specific set of tasks. Self-regulation helps kids reflect and track their own thoughts and actions so that they can adjust as needed.

One such example is when children are performing maths and a specific formula does not give them the desired results. They re-check the sum to find out their error.

Flexible Thinking

woman in white shirt holding orange fruit

Flexibility refers to a child’s ability to change their plans or course of action when necessary. This can be anything from being willing to try new food, to being able to adjust their schedule if something unexpected comes up.

It can also refer to a child’s ability to change their approach or strategy when faced with new information or circumstances. It requires the ability to come up with different solutions and approaches when things do not go according to plan.

For example, if a child is used to doing something in one way, like going to the park on Friday afternoons. However, on one Friday, the family can’t go to the park because it is raining or they have another event to go to, a child with flexible thinking may understand this and be okay. However, a child without flexible thinking may cry about not going on the playground all afternoon.

Children who are flexible are often more adaptable and better able to cope with change. They are also less likely to get frustrated when things don’t go according to plan.

Planning and Organizing

As the name suggests, planning and organization skills refer to a child’s ability to plan and organize their time and resources in an effective manner. This includes everything from knowing how to prioritize tasks to be able to stick to a schedule.

Children who have good planning and organization skills are often able to complete their homework on time and remember to bring all the necessary materials with them to school.

Time Management

Time management is closely related to planning and organization skills. It refers to a child’s ability to use their time wisely and efficiently moment to moment. This means being able to estimate how long a task will take, break it down into smaller goals, and set a deadline for completing it.

Children who are good at time management are often able to complete their homework without rushing and still have time for extracurricular activities and relaxation.

Working Memory

Working memory refers to a child’s ability to remember information in their heads for the very short term so that they can use it right away. For example, working memory is where you remember the teacher’s instructions and follow the directions.

This is different from short term and long-term memory, which is when information is stored for a longer period of time.

Good verbal working memory is essential for children to be able to remember things like what they need to do next or the steps they need to follow in order to complete a task.

Self-Control

Self-control refers to a child’s ability to resist impulsive behavior and focus on the task at hand. Self restraint prevents a child from acting on their first instinct and instead makes them pause to think about the consequences of their actions.

This skill is important for children to be able to control their emotions and stay on task.

Children with good self-control are able to stay focused even when things get difficult or they start feeling frustrated. This allows them to come up with creative solutions and overcome challenges more effectively.

Organization of Materials

The organization of materials helps children put things in order and be able to locate them when they are needed. This includes everything from being able to keep your belongings neatly arranged at home or school, to remember where you left something last.

Children who are good at organizing their materials are more likely to be well prepared for class and able to complete assignments on time. Having a good system in place also helps reduce stress since they know exactly where everything is located.

Metacognition

Metacognition is the ability to think about one’s own thinking. This includes being able to reflect on your own learning process and make adjustments as needed.

Children who are good at metacognition are often able to monitor their own understanding of a concept and make changes to their study habits as needed. This allows them to learn more effectively and retain information better.

How Do You Evaluate a Child’s Executive Functioning Skills?

Kid at meeting with female psychologist in office

If you’re concerned about your child’s executive functions, there are a few ways to find out how they are going.

One option is to contact your child’s school and request a meeting with their teacher. The teacher can observe your child in the classroom and give you feedback on their strengths and weaknesses.

Another option is to seek out a professional evaluation from a psychologist or occupational therapist. This type of evaluation will usually include standardized assessments and questions about your child’s behavior.

The goal of an evaluation is to identify any areas where your child may need help. Once these areas are identified, you can work with your child on specific strategies to improve their skills.

Conclusion

Overall, executive functions are one of the more challenging areas for children. It takes time to develop these skills and they will do this over time as they are exposed to more opportunities.

Problems with executive function, executive function deficits, or executive dysfunction, can make it challenging for children to focus in class, plan, organize, control their emotions, have cognitive flexibility and develop self-awareness.

By encouraging these abilities from a young age, adults can help children fully develop their executive functioning skills. If your child stuggles with executive functions this does mean they have an executive function disorder or learning disability, it simply means they have some executive function problems that might need some assistance.

References

Hanson, C. (2021, December 25). Executive function skills by age: What to look for. Life Skills Advocate. Retrieved May 5, 2022, from https://lifeskillsadvocate.com/blog/executive-function-skills-by-age/

Hill Learning Center. (2019, April 12). 7 Executive Functioning Skills Your Child Should Have. Retrieved May 5, 2022, from https://www.hillcenter.org/7-executive-functioning-skills-your-child-should-have/

Understood. (n.d.). Executive functioning: What is executive function? Retrieved May 5, 2022, from https://www.understood.org/en/articles/what-is-executive-function

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