Executive Functioning Skills Series - Part 1

Sally is a bright student, reading fluently, completing mental math with ease, and spewing articulate and detailed summaries of science and history facts. She invests significant effort into her work and enjoys school. She is so concerned with accuracy that she spends an inordinate amount of time on her homework. However, perfectionism isn’t the only obstacle to Sally completing her work and enjoying family time. She also takes at least 20 minutes to begin her homework, going back and forth between her immaculate desk and well-ordered backpack and her parents’ office to get the supplies for each assignment. During this zig-zag activity, she tells her little brother to stop touching her belongings, pets the dog, gets a snack. Even when her mom or dad check her homework and help her put it into color-coded folders in her backpack, Sally frequently receives only partial credit because it was submitted several days late. Sally’s parents are confused by these inconsistencies and frustrated that Sally’s grades don’t reflect her true ability and knowledge, or the long hours she spends studying. Sally is feeling dejected and the demands of middle school are increasing the time she devotes to school work so much, she may have to quit the volleyball team in order to keep up.

Sally is not unmotivated, nor academically or cognitively challenged. Sally is exhibiting a pattern of strengths and weaknesses in the skills necessary to accomplish tasks of which she is entirely capable.

The brain-based skills required to accomplish goals, manage emotions, and interact socially are called by various names, including executive functioning skills, executive skills, essential life skills, and soft skills. They are the practices and skills required to begin, follow-through with, and complete tasks; to manage time, emotions, and responses; and to solve problems.

Amanda Morin names eight executive skills: impulse control, emotional control, flexibility, working memory, self-monitoring, planning and prioritizing, task initiation, and organization. To Morin’s list, Peg Dawson and Richard Guare add time management, sustained attention, goal-directed persistence, and metacognition.

As with language, the potential for executive skills is part of human biology. As with language, the way these skills actually develop varies among individuals. We all exhibit strengths with certain executive skills, while others are weaker and create challenges for us in everyday situations. Drs. Dawson and Guare have created a questionnaire to identify areas of strengths and weaknesses, and they encourage parents to compare their own patterns of skills with those of their children. It is not uncommon for children to mirror their parents’ patterns of development. Since most adults have either developed their weaker skills sufficiently or found compensatory strategies by capitalizing on their strengths, we can share our own experiences to support the young people in our lives. Likewise, if your child struggles in an area that is a natural strength for you, it is vital to appreciate the individual patters we each possess without assuming that certain habits or tasks are equally easy or accessible for everyone.

When Sally took the executive skills questionnaire, it was clear that her ability to hold information in mind while manipulating it was a strength for her, evidenced by her strong reading and math problem-solving skills. Because her metacognition is also strong, she can clearly see that her continued dedication despite feeling chastised for late assignments, and her ability to maintain a tidy work space and use folders effectively coincide with her strengths in emotional control and organization.

It also became clear to both Sally and her parents that task initiation, planning and prioritizing, response inhibition, and goal-directed persistence were areas where Sally needs some support.

The tutors at Peak Academics are trained to help students capitalize on their strengths, make adjustments to the environment to compensate for weaknesses, and further develop executive skills that are lacking or lagging. Through collaboration with parents, we can use coaching, mental rehearsal, and other techniques to address challenges. Everyday routines can be used as a way to teach executive skills, even as we provide support to set goals and develop plans to reach them; monitor performance; help with problem-solving along the way; and gradually develop independence.

The Peak blog next quarter on executive skills will further explore the brain development that contributes to these skills and provide specific strategies for support. To start supporting your child now, check out these resources and contact Peak to learn how we can help!

Understood, where you can find articles about executive skills, learning differences, dyslexia, and attention issues, including articles by Amanda Morin, cited above.

Jason Gots’ article about the Seven Essential Life Skills, provided by bigthink. The article includes a video of Ellen Galinsky explaining executive function life skills and discussing her book, Mind in the Making.

The work of Dr. Peg Dawson and Dr. Richard Guare, including Smart but Scattered and Smart but Scattered Teens.

Drs. Dawson and Guare’s Executive Skills Questionnaire for kids, teens, and adults.

By Kerrilee Wing