Could Executive Function Be the Culprit?

I must begin by telling you that I am FASCINATED by Executive Function! When properly understood, it's like having a lightbulb turned on....for EVERY ADULT AND CHILD you know!

Executive function (EF) refers to an area in the frontal lobes of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. Think of the frontal lobes as the CEO of an important company; you. The CEO tells everyone what to do and how to do it. If they work well, you have an awesome CEO. If they don’t, then things don’t run so smoothly and efficiently. The CEO doesn’t perform his job very well. He can’t be fired, but he can be rehabilitated!

Peg Dawson, EdD, and Richard Guare, PhD have written a great book called Smart but Scattered , and I refer to it frequently when trying to understand the role executive function plays not only in my child’s life, but in my own.

What Does Executive Function Do?

Executive function allows a person to guide their own behavior from moment to moment. According to Dawson and Guare, the list of EF includes:

-Response inhibition

-Working memory

-Emotional Control

-Sustained attention

-Task initiation

-Planning/prioritization

-Organization

-Time management

-Goal-directed persistence

-Flexibility

-Metacognition

-Social Thinking

EF Weaknesses

Anyone can have an EF weakness! Adults and children!

Researchers are learning that ADHD is associated with weaknesses in EF; however, not everyone who has ADHD has an executive function weakness. And, ADHD likes to hang out with lots of other neurological challenges!

Researchers know that children with ADHD AND EF weaknesses are more likely to struggle academically in school; frequently repeating a grade. They know that children must have a strong EF skills to succeed in school and at home.

Think about it for a minute.

Your teacher hands you an assignment and tells you its due Friday. As a good CEO, your brain must:

-process the information

-develop a plan of action and execute it

-remember the plan and what is done at any given time

-organize the information in a logical manner

-budget sufficient time to get the project done

-stay focused on the task

-delay gratification to get the task completed

-remember to turn in the project

And that’s only one project!!!

Rehabilitating the EF Beast

The potential for remediation is spectacular!

That CEO we talked about? He can learn new skills to replace the old ones. He wants to keep his job.

With that in mind, therapists, parents, and educators can begin to teach those specific skills that are weak.

Mary Poppins had the best advice. You must start at the very beginning; it’s a very good place to be. 

Complete a skills inventory with or for your child, depending on their age. This will help you to determine their EF's that are strong as well as weak. Smart but Scattered has a good initial assessment leveled by age.

Once you complete the initial assessment, you need to make a list of both strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes the weaknesses overwhelm the strengths.

Your child needs to hear what they are doing right.

Continue to build on those strengths, and begin to tear apart the weak areas. You can…

-break down assignments into smaller pieces

-make a post-it note calendar to help visually block increments of time during the day and week.

-use items such as time timer to help children become aware of the passage of time.

-make checklists and to-do lists your new best friend

-learn to use a daily planner based on your child’s learning style.

-give verbal cues as often as possible to prepare them for transition times

Discovering your child’s hidden strengths and weaknesses is a huge step in the right direction. Remember, the needs of your child will change as they mature.

The farther they advance in school, the greater the demand on executive functions. Review them occasionally with appropriate professionals. Together, those small changes will add up to big improvements!