What Is Executive Functioning?
Why are some people able to put down their phones and resist the temptation to check social media? Why can some people identify a goal and break down and follow all the steps while others procrastinate until the last minute or can’t even get started with the first step? Why do some students lose track of their assignments?
When many people think of what it takes to be successful at school or a job, they often consider specific academic strengths such as being good at reading, or having particular knowledge or training, such as engineering or sales skills. They might even consider that one must be a hard worker or be able to work well on a team.
And while all those skills matter, what underlies success, what is invisible but essential, is Executive Functions. Executive Function (EF) is a blanket term for a set of general-purpose control processes that facilitate thoughts and behaviors. EFs are what allow us to accomplish goals, solve problems, resist distractions, maintain focus, plan, and regulate our behaviors. EFs are a core component of self-regulation (colloquially known as ‘willpower’) that have broad-ranging and significant implications for our everyday lives.
Executive Functions are what allow us to accomplish goals, solve problems, resist distractions, maintain focus, plan, and regulate our behaviors.
All persons have relative strengths and weaknesses in EF, but persons with certain disabilities have been shown to have particular difficulties with EFs, including ADHD, Autism, TBI, and PTSD. In addition, life circumstances such as stress can have a negative impact on EFs. Research has shown that EF skills are essential for mental and physical health, and cognitive, social, and psychological development; important for school readiness (even more than early reading and math skills); and predict both math and reading competence through the school years. Long-term, poor EF skills lead to poor productivity and difficulty finding and keeping a job.
What are Executive Functioning skills?
Research indicates a consensus that there are three basic components of EFs: inhibition, working memory, and cognitive flexibility (also called ‘shifting’). From these core components, practitioners may distinguish higher-order EFs such as reasoning, problem-solving, sustained attention, goal-directed persistence, emotional control, and time management.
What is Inhibition?
Inhibition is the ability to suppress dominant or automatic responses (including attention, behavior, thoughts, and emotions) and to do what is more appropriate or needed. In other words, it is the ability to ignore impulses, old habits, and stimuli, and choose a different behavior, action or response. This includes self-control, which is behavioral inhibition, and interference control, which is selective attention and cognitive inhibition. A frequent behavioral inhibition example that many students currently face is the discipline to stay on task despite distractions, which are often more immediately rewarding than the task at hand, such as when a student needs to complete a homework assignment and has to inhibit the urge to respond to a friend’s text message. An example of interference control is when we are in a crowded area and need to block out all noises but the person we are talking to.
Research has shown that inhibition plays an important role with younger children, who are more susceptible to distractions in the environment. Inhibition must develop first in order to ignore that irrelevant stimuli in their environment before problem solving can develop further. Research shows that by age 4, children successfully perform simple (pure response inhibition) and complex (response inhibition plus alternative response) inhibition tasks. Significant improvements also occur later, particularly during early elementary, ages 5 to 8. Additional improvements also continue in middle childhood through age 15, and final maturation, research suggests, continues until age 21.
To learn more about Inhibition, read my related article, “What Is Inhibition and Why Is It a Key Component of Executive Functioning?”
What is Working Memory?
Working memory is the ability to maintain and use information over brief periods of time. Working memory is broken up into verbal working memory and nonverbal (visual-spatial) working memory. This component of EF is essential for making sense of anything that unfolds over time, because we have to hold in memory what happened earlier and then relate that to what comes later. For example, in order to maintain a conversation, we have to track and connect the earlier and later parts of a dialogue. Other examples are math calculations, creating a plan of action from instructions, and considering alternate approaches or decisions. Reasoning could not happen without working memory. This is distinct from short-term memory, as this only encompasses holding information in the mind, while working memory includes the further ability to then use that information.
Research has shown continued growth with working memory through childhood and adolescence, with further refinement improving as the prefrontal cortex becomes more specialized. Unlike the development of inhibition, which shows large improvements at distinct periods of childhood and adolescence, the course of working memory development is linear from early childhood through adolescence.
Research has demonstrated that working memory and inhibition interact and are inextricably linked. These two core components support each other and if one is needed, so is the other. For example, when a goal-oriented action is recalled in working memory, then other actions are inhibited by default from entering working memory.
To learn more about Working Memory, read my related article, What is Working Memory and Why is it a Key Component of Executive Functioning?
What is Cognitive Flexibility/Shifting?
Cognitive flexibility is the ability to move between mental states, actions or tasks. In order to do this successfully, one must inhibit previously activated thoughts or actions. The distinction between shifting and inhibition is that shifting is more typically about switching between two or more mental states, with each state possibly having several task rules to follow, while inhibition is typically of a single response. Shifting has been closely linked to creativity. An example of shifting is changing how we think about something, such as ‘thinking outside the box.’ If my first approach to problem-solving hasn’t worked, can I strategize a new solution? Having cognitive flexibility means one can adjust to changing demands or priorities, such as when a student has planned out their week of studying for an exam, but those plans are interfered with due to an unexpected event – how does the student adjust their study plan?
Preschoolers at ages 3 to 4 have been shown to successfully shift between two simple response sets, and the development of this skill follows a lengthy development through adolescence. Advanced shifting develops alongside the growth of the prefrontal cortex, due to the need for various cognitive processes.
What is Planning?
While most researchers only identify the above three areas as core components of EF, there is some suggestion that an additional distinct area of EF is planning. Planning is considered a critical part of goal-oriented behavior, as it is the ability to devise actions in advance and to then approach the task or activity in an organized, deliberate and efficient way. Similar to shifting, planning ability improves over many years, into at least late childhood and adolescence. Without planning, we could not accomplish goals. If I want to perform a Bach piano concerto at a recital, I must first plan and accomplish numerous smaller goals first; I cannot play Bach before I have learned what middle C is. I have to develop steps to a plan and follow them in an organized and efficient way in order to achieve the goal in the time period.
What is Executive Functioning Disorder?
Although the idea that a formal disorder of executive dysfunction is seen on the internet, and as tutors we’ve even seen it from doctors and on psychological reports, Executive Functioning Disorder is not a standalone diagnosis of a specific mental health condition, as it is not distinguished separate from symptoms associated with ADHD, Autism, or neurological disorders such as TBI or PTSD in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual or Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
As an example, diagnostic symptoms of ADHD include behaviors that fit under the definition of EFs, including failing to give close attention to details, not following through on instructions, and trouble organizing. In later years, a neurological disorder such as Alzheimer’s can impair executive function, such as reducing inhibition which can change the behaving appropriately in social situations. Beyond the above listed conditions, depression may impact executive functions, such as memory, attention, and control of inhibitions.
While deficits in EFs can and do have a significant effect on daily and future functioning, and the behaviors can and should be addressed, families may also want to consider whether to seek additional information from their doctor or psychologist on ruling out the above medical or psychological conditions that may impair EFs. Research has shown that EFs also suffer when people are struggling with exhaustion/sleep deprivation, severe pain, stress, loneliness, poor physical fitness, drug and alcohol use, distracting environments, and boredom.
Although Executive Dysfunction is not a formal diagnosis, doctors and psychologists can help families determine if their child has problems with EFs, compared with their peers or age-level expectations. Parents might want to seek out additional information if they have noticed their child has demonstrated challenges with planning projects, estimating how long an activity or project will take to complete, telling or writing stories in an organized fashion, memorizing, getting started on tasks or projects, adjusting to changes in plans, and maintaining focus on only one task.
Since Executive Dysfunction is not a separate disorder, there isn’t a specific set of criteria that can be used to diagnose someone. However, there are tests that are used to determined how well a child’s EF is working. The Barkley Deficits in Executive Functioning Scale (BDEFS) screens concerns with organization, self-restraint, motivation, emotional control, and time management. The benefit of this measure is that it provides information on how someone acts over a period of time, as opposed to a distinct one-time measure. The Comprehensive Executive Function Inventor (CEFI) measures EF strengths and weaknesses in kids from 5 to 18, and once a child is 12, a self-report is taken along with the parent and teacher responses. The Conners 3 Parent Rating Scale assesses behavior in children ages 6-18, specifically related to attention and focus, as well as identifying learning problems in memory and subjects, like reading, spelling, and math. Similar with the CEFI, parents and teachers complete the rating scales in addition to a self-report tool for older children. Parent and child interviews may also be performed by a doctor or psychologist, to answer questions related to performance at work or school, social relationships, mood and self-esteem, willingness to perform difficult tasks, and motivation or interest in activities. EF skills develop as children, and their brains, grow, so a professional will determine if the behaviors are age-appropriate.
To narrow down which core component of EF is deficient, a psychologist may also assess your child using the following tasks. The Day/Night task, Luria’s fist and finger game, the A-not-B task, and the Stroop task all assess inhibition, all which require a person to inhibit one response to make another or to inhibit a response to do nothing. Shifting is evaluated through the Wisconsin Card Sorting Task, where the participant is asked to sort cards based on a specific dimension (such as shape) and then the participant receives positive or negative feedback. Without notification, the sorting rule changes (such as color), which the participant intuits based on negative feedback, and must then sort accordingly. Lastly, working memory is assessed through asking persons to reorder items they have heard (such as hearing ‘8, 3, 9’ and asking them to reorder them in number order ‘3, 8, 9’), the Corsi Block test, the Self-Ordered Pointing task, and Continuous Performance Tasks (n-back tests).
How to Help a Child with Executive Functioning Problems
Executive Functioning skills can, and will, improve with help. It does take effort, as it is easier for us as humans to keep doing what we’ve been doing, no matter how dysfunctional, than to change. It is easier for people to give in to temptations (such as the ever present Netflix or Instagram) than to resist it, and it is easier to do our homework on ‘automatic pilot’ or to dive right in than to pause and plan out a best approach.
The core components of EFs directly affects academic performance. For example, a weak working memory hampers remembering instructions or performing mental calculations, and many other foundational tasks. Inhibition is essential for ignoring the many different stimuli we are surrounded with during the day and ignoring irrelevant information. Shifting is important for moving from one task to another or adjusting when plans change.
At school, it may be helpful to seek out a 504 plan or an IEP if your child has significant challenges with EFs. In either a 504 or an IEP, the team might determine that the student would benefit from accommodations such as the following:
extra time on tests and/or homework
pair written with oral instructions
set up behavioral contract
allowing to keep a set of books at home
break long assignments into smaller parts
At home, parents can do a lot to support and build EF skills, starting from a young age. This includes building independence in responsibility, such as putting dirty clothes in a hamper, putting away toys in baskets after finishing playing, and putting their activities on the family calendar. As students get older, they can increase their level of responsibility for completing their homework, preparing their lunch, and packing their backpack. Parents can help their child figure out what system works best: a binder, a trapper keeper, or individual folders? Is it more helpful to put all their homework away after immediately finishing it, and then put the backpack by the door or in their bedroom? Does your child have a routine they follow to complete chores and to get ready in the morning?
Recent research into intervention strategies that been shown to effectively impact EF skills include attention control training and mindfulness-based training. The primary outcome of these interventions is improvements in inhibitory control, which in turn improves working memory. If I can better maintain my attention to a reading passage, then I am more likely to have better recall of that passage. Additional intervention strategies that have been shown to be effective include CogMed© computerized training, Taekwondo martial arts, specific combinations of computerized and interactive games, task-switching computerized training, and two school-based curricula (Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS) and Chicago School Readiness Project (CSRP)).
At Chicago Home Tutor, many parents have found us after seeing the negative impact of weak EFs on academics. As tutors, we help students develop organization systems, learn how to create and plan for long-term goals, design effective study systems, and create and maintain systems to help them manage distractions and focus. While there are additional options for EF tutoring, we have found our direct supports to be beneficial; teaching a child the theoretical components of EF is important but without learning and using the application in their day-to-day life, one is unlikely to see improvements. If you ask your child what they should be doing to be better organized, they can most likely tell you; they have had plenty of practice in the classroom over the years with planners being completed as a whole class, individually checked out by their teacher, and backpacks confirmed for paperwork. From a young age, teachers are providing rubrics with detailed due dates on the steps to completion of a project. However, as those supports are weaned in developmentally appropriate ways, not all students retain this skill in their daily activity and need additional supports. Repeated practice with increased demands on independence is key for gains to be seen in EFs. As tutors, teachers, and school psychologists, we have seen what research bears out: EF is a predictor of lifelong achievement, health, wealth and quality of life.
About the Author
Tulin S. Akin is a certified school psychologist who has been working as a tutor and Executive Function coach with Chicago Home Tutor for four years. Prior to CHT, she worked in public schools (elementary and high school) for eight years, after getting her specialist degree in school psychology for Illinois State University. Tulin works with students in all academic areas but has chosen to specialize in EFs after observing the affects of poorly functioning EF skills on student performance and long-term functioning. Her articles are based on reviews of current research literature, texts for practitioners, and hands-on supports for students through college age.
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