Executive Function (EF) has become one of the hottest topics in education journals, parenting books, webinars, conferences, and the meeting room at my school. Parents come in with questions or share new resources they’ve found on an almost-weekly basis. The amount of information can be overwhelming, and it may be vital to understanding many of the most common difficulties we see with school-aged children.

“Executive Functioning” refers to a set of skills housed in the frontal lobe of the brain. This is the part of the brain that is responsible for managing attention, emotions, and behavior. The prefrontal cortex, which is a part of the frontal lobe, is in charge of the mental actions that allow us to reach our goals, according to Ellen Galinsky1.  She sets forth seven essential skills, which are vital to learning and life. You can read about the seven skills, which include focus and self-control, perspective taking, communicating, and taking on challenges in her book, Mind in the Making.

Dr. Lynne Kenney, in a recent conference, listed 12 executive functions: self-regulating, inhibiting impulses, sustaining attention, shifting attention, maintaining cognitive flexibility, controlling emotions, initiating activity, holding information in working memory, planning, organizing materials, self-monitoring, and managing time. She presents a slew of resources and suggested activities to help kids build their capacities to acquire skills in these areas on her website and in her books2.

The National Center for Learning Disabilities has published an e-book3that provides a 28-page introduction to Executive Function and ways to help kids who struggle with EF. Some of the common challenges they have identified are troubles planning and executing projects, telling stories with organized details, sequencing details, memorizing information and recalling it later, beginning tasks, generating ideas, and remembering information while using that information to engage in a task.

Many activities that adults complete almost effortlessly every day require a great many discrete skills of which we are virtually unaware. If we analyze each part of an activity such as calling a plumber, and then reflect on the mental processes involved, we will see that they are actually rather complex. Before I consider calling a plumber, I have to realize I have a problem. I consider my options for solving it. If I lack the knowledge, tools, time, and/or physical strength and dexterity to fix the problem, my options are narrowed considerably, but I need to be aware of my limitations. Once I arrive at the decision to call a stranger with experience, I need to locate the right person. I have to complete all the steps involved in finding a phone number, remembering it, and dialing. I need to provide the plumber with information, and may need to involve others, like my insurance company. This is all a lot of work just to fix a leaky sink! Consider the overwhelming number of discrete skills that a child must execute simultaneously in order to navigate a typical school day and the almost endless decision-making involved—all with immature emotions, limited knowledge, and a not-yet-fully developed frontal lobe.

As the sources stated here note, and as common sense dictates, these skills are developmental. Additionally, each child develops at a different rate.  The curiosity that we encourage in our kids can be inconvenient; the need for movement and desire to play that are intrinsic and lovely aspects of childhood can be seen as disruptive; naïve candidness of young conversation can appear to be ineffective communication. These tendencies are not always problems. As stated by the Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, “Children aren’t born with these skills—they are born with the potential to develop them.” 4

On the other hand, there are expected norms of behavior and development within certain ranges. Well-informed, experienced practitioners utilize a variety of diagnostic tools to assess a child’s skills and make recommendations. The usual due diligence exercised when choosing any professional to work with your child, whether an educator, pediatrician, or babysitter, should be implemented when seeking advice.

My next blog will include some of the suggestions made by the sources cited here, as well as reflections on some that I have implemented in my own practice in the classroom and while tutoring.

Executive Function Sources