Executive Function seems to have become the new buzz phrase in the last few years, but actually it has been around for a long time. Executive Function (EF) is not a single concept; in fact it’s an umbrella term for many domains such as organization, memory, self-control, attention control, initiative, planning and many others. It is the cognitive processes that assist us in achieving our goals. It begins during infancy, develops throughout childhood and continues until early adulthood. EF skills are associated with the frontal lobe, and often you will hear EF being used interchangeably with frontal lobe function.
Many children have EF deficits; in fact a child does not need to have a diagnosable disability. Whereas ADHD is one group that usually has EF deficits, it can also be found in children born premature, those with Autism, head injuries, stroke, depression, and learning disabilities. Individuals can be diagnosed with EF deficits with testing by neuropsychologists and psychologists. Neuropsychologists tend to be more flexible with their battery of testing and will have more test instruments to fully examine all the domains. Just because a neuropsychologist does not find any EF deficits does not mean that are not EF deficits.
I think one of the most frustrating things about EF deficits is that it’s not considered a disorder. It is not in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), and also is not specifically used in IEPs (Individual Education Plans) or 504 plans in the education systems. Because of this, it is difficult to get assistance for students with these deficits. Another aspect that is important to remember is that EF and intelligence is not the same thing. Just because a child has a high IQ (intelligence quotient), doesn’t mean that they have intact EF. The same can be said for a child with a low IQ, they can have strong EF skills.
So, here is a real life example of how we use our EF skills everyday. You’re on your way to work where you will be presenting at the weekly meeting. While driving, you receive a call from your child’s school and they are sick and need to be picked up. Unfortunately your spouse is on travel out of the state. Immediately you go into problem solving mode, figuring out how you will attend to your child while still being at your presentation. You also have to think about a plan for a possible doctor appointment, and an afternoon missing work. Lastly, you have stay calm enough to give a presentation after a plan has been set. So here we can see several of the processes of EF put into motion. We have the switching from work mode to parent mode, organizing a plan, initiating the plan, self-monitoring throughout the process, and emotional self-control.
As you can see above, we use our EF everyday, you can only imagine what it is like for your child when they are in the middle of a video game and you ask them to pack their book bag for the next day.
Depending on the domain where the difficulties are, tips can vary. Here are a few though:
-For those children that have difficulties staying on task, use a timer and make sure to take breaks according to a child’s age.
- Schedules really help to keep children on track, make sure to review them several times throughout the day.
-Written and oral instructions. For the little ones you can pictures instead of words.
- Use calendars for long term assignments, activities, and due dates.
-Reward your child, it’s important for them to associate positivity with their success in things.