What is Executive Functioning?

The executive functions are a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation. It is basically a set of mental skills that helps a person manage life tasks for example: organising, planning, managing life.

There are 3 main areas of executive functioning and they are:

    1. Working Memory – is the ability to hold on to new information so we can turn around and use it in some way. It allows us to hold information without losing track of what we are doing.  Attention plays a big role in this process. Working memory works like a sticky note in our brain. It holds new information in place so the brain can work with it briefly and perhaps connect it with other information.
    2. Cognitive Flexibility also known as Flexible thinking – allows us to think more than one way to solve the problem. It enables us to come up with ways to tackle problems. Being able to see things in different ways helps us develop different strategies.
    3. Inhibitory control – permits an individual to inhibit their impulses and natural, habitual, or dominant behavioural responses to stimuli in order to select a more appropriate behaviour that is consistent with completing their goals. One of the important aspects of inhibitory control is self-control.

Executive function is responsible for many skills, including:

  • Paying attention
  • Organising, planning, and prioritising
  • Initiating tasks and staying focused on them until they are finished
  • Understanding different point of view
  • Regulating emotions
  • Self-monitoring (keeping track of what you are doing)

Executive functioning skills usually develop quickly in early childhood and into the teen years. But the keep developing into the mid-20s. When kids are younger, some maybe behind their peers for a while. As they get older, though, they may have fewer challenges as teens and young adults.

What are the signs of Difficulty with Executive Functioning ?

  • Have trouble starting and or/ completing tasks
  • Have difficulty in prioritising tasks
  • Forget what they just heard or read
  • Have trouble in following instructions or directions or a sequence of steps
  • Panic or gets upset when rules or routines change
  • Have trouble in switching focus from one task to another
  • Get overly emotional and fixate on things
  • Have trouble keeping track of their things /belongings
  • Have trouble in managing their time

Keep in mind that having difficulties with executive functioning is NOT a diagnosis or a learning disability. But it is common in people who learn and think differently. Everyone with ADHD has trouble with it. As wells as people with learning challenges struggle with executive function, too. These difficulties can cause trouble in learning but they do not mean that people are lazy or not intelligent. People who struggle with executive function are just as smart and work just as hard as other people.

There has been a lot of research into what causes trouble with executive function and ADHD. Here are two factors:

  1. Differences in brain development – Researchers found that certain areas of the brain develop more slowly in people who struggle with executive skills. These areas are responsible for working memory and emotional control.
  2. Genes and heredity – people who have difficulties in executive function often have family members who do, too

How can Occupational Therapy help your child with executive functioning issues?

Executive functioning skills are learned by the child, and some children need more modelling and assistance than others. Occupational Therapists can help by providing the right guidance to allow these skills to emerge along with their developmental milestones. Since executive functioning skills are used across a variety of contexts, it’s important for OTs to collaborate with your child’s teacher and parent/carer so that learning opportunities are able to be maximised.

Skill areas an OT may work with your child on include:

Self-regulation: Focusing attention, filtering distractions, controlling impulses, coping and calming skills.

Problem-solving: Goal setting, making a plan and considering possible scenarios, sequencing steps, and following directions, organisation, recognising errors and correcting them, evaluating self-performance, achieving a goal.

Multitasking: Prioritising, remembering and working with multiple pieces of information.

Flexible thinking: Switching approach to a task, considering new ideas or strategies, making choices and decisions, maintaining social interaction

Strategies an OT may use to foster executive functioning skills include:

Visual tools: Using images or social stories to help foster organisational skills. For example: routine and sticker charts, visual schedules, keeping belongings in the same place everyday.

Breaking things down: Breaking down tasks into manageable parts to help with task initiation and planning. For example, scaffolding using ‘hamburger paragraph’ and mind maps.

Memory and matching games to promote working memory.

Providing scaffolds through visual schedules to help sequence tasks and promote attention to the task at hand.

Using self-regulation strategies through movement breaks and transition activities to maintain focus.

Goal setting: Teaching kids to sketch out what an assignment will look like when it is completed to help identify where to start, what components are needed, and what the assignment will look like when it is finished.

Of course, it’s important to keep in mind each child is unique. OTs help to pinpoint the skill area(s) that your child has challenges with and develop the relevant strategies during therapy.

If you think your child has difficulties in executive functioning, please give us a call on (02) 4959 8920.

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