What are Executive Functions?

“Executive functions” is a term used by educators and psychologists to describeone’s capacity to meet challenges and accomplish goals. It is a higher-orderability responsible for controlling one’s thinking, behavior, and emotions. Individuals canexperience difficulty with executive functions even if they are incredibly bright. Those difficulties often manifest themselvesduring the school years and into adulthood, and can be debilitating. Many of us know highly intelligent people who are not able to achieve their potential, and the reasons for this may not be apparent at first, although common traits often become apparent when we look carefully. Those traits include disorganization and the lack of ability to set goals and plan ahead.

Executive function skills enableus to do everything from completing simple daily chores to creating a business plan. It is a term psychologists use to describe the many tasks our brains perform that are necessary to think, act and solve problems, as well as to remember and retrieve information.

Executive functioning involves a diverse set of skills, including:

Organization, Planning, and Time Management:

Building these foundation skills is critical to success in being able to handle day-to-day challenges. It takes many forms, from organizing materials to thinking clearly andto writing coherentpapers. Good planners think ahead by laying out the various parts of a task and addressing them in an organized, manner. They also develop the capacity to allocate time wisely, and meet deadlines. Good organization, planning and time management skills often lead to success.

Initiating Tasks, Sustaining Attention, Persisting with Goals andRemaining Focused:

Even those who are organized can experience repeated failures if they do not have these skills. Procrastination plagues the best of writers, as do distractions, which then prevent one from staying on track. A student, who resists when routines are changed, needs to learn to persist along the path to goal completion.

Working Memory:

This is the ability to retain information while performing a complex task. For example, math requires a good working memory, and when it is weak, the student must compensate by writing down the steps used in solving the problem at hand. College freshmen will face even more working memory challenges, so it is important to learn such strategies early on.

Response Inhibition:

Students need to think before acting and to focus on the task at hand. The ability to follow through is critical, outside temptations notwithstanding.

Emotional Control:

The ability to maintain one’s focus and keep emotions under control is often a challenge. Over-reaction to criticism or loss in a game,for example, can interfere with scholastic success. Children who react to stress or disappointment with emotional meltdowns also often suffer embarrassment and social isolation.

Self-Monitoring:

This is the ability to stand back and evaluate oneself and to correct errors or probems. Young children who are unable to self-monitor may not recognize their errors without adult prompting. Teenagers and young adults eventually must develop an understanding of their own executive functions profile, and then take responsibility for correcting themselves. A related term is “metacognition”-- knowing one’s own skill strengths and weaknesses, and being able to adjust accordingly.

How and when do we intervene to help individuals who struggle with executive functions?

Executive function skills develop gradually over time – with the critical years occurring during the middle and high school years. Small children are not expected to have well-developed executive functions, and most children will struggle with some or all of the executive function skills at some point. However, as schoolwork becomes more demanding, and as more independent thinking and planning is required, the impact of executive function deficits can become roadblocks to success and interfere with school performance.

An executive function skills evaluation involves a variety of formalized tests, observations and informal interviews.The evaluation helps coaches develop individualized student programs. Together, the coach and student can establish specificstrategies, such as:

  • Using day planner and time organizer tools, either paper-based or computer-based;
  • Using visual schedules as prompts and reminders throughout the day;
  • Using checklists and to-do lists;
  • Breaking tasks down into components;
  • Using positive reinforcement to motivate a child;
  • Encouraging teachers to relay information and instructions both verbally and in written form and to anticipate “crunch” periods;
  • Providingan organized workspace at home and appropriate technology supports.

Improving executive function skills is extremely difficult for many individuals because it involves planning ahead, organizing and managing time, avoiding procrastination, resisting distractions, completing tasks and monitoring one’s own performance, which is why so many adolescents give up before they get started.

The Collaborative Center for Learning and Development offers an eight-session “EF Boot Camp” tailored to each student. It consists of an initial assessment of theindividual’s capabilities,then seven sessions of targeted coaching by trained professionals. Each session begins with a review of the previous week’s goals and progress, and involves brainstorming between the student and coach before moving on to the next goal area.

“The built-in consistency of this predictable process helps ensure that the student is both engaged and remains positive about his or her chances for successfully achieving goals. Our coaches understand the psychological underpinnings of behavior change as well as the need for building rapport. The student needs to know that the coach believes in him or her, or they will likely give up,” explained Nancy Grejtak, Director.

The Collaborative Center for Learning and Development is currently enrolling students for fall 2014 sessions. Parent seminars on the topic of executive function skills are also available. For more information call 203-409-0069 or visit www.CollaborativeCenter.org.