What are the Executive Functions?
Have you been told your child could have executive function challenges and now you’re wondering what that means? Maybe you want to improve your child’s (or your own) executive functioning and you’re not sure how to go about it. Perhaps you know about the different executive functions (are there eight or twelve?) but you’re not sure which ones to address. All of them? A targeted number of them? Figuring out what executive functions (EFs) actually are, what they do, and how they affect each other can be a little tricky when there’s so much information out there and not all of it adds up.
Executive functions are the most complicated sets of thought processes and skills that our brain develops. Think of EFs like packages of skills, little sets of tools that our brain puts together to help us be successful in school, work, and the rest of our lives. Up until early childhood, our brains have managed to learn the basics, like walking and talking. Some of the things we need to learn after that are actually pretty complicated because they involve thinking ahead about consequences, keeping our wiggly arms and legs in check, and managing some complicated intellectual ideas, sometimes all at the same time. We have to be able to stop ourselves from hitting our sister when we’re angry (Impulse Control or Response Inhibition) and we have to learn to start to put our toys away even when we don’t want to (Task Initiation). Later on, even bigger skills develop, such as paying attention in class without fidgeting (Sustained Attention) and thinking of something we want to buy and then saving up our allowance to buy it (Goal Setting and Execution).
Executive functions aren’t like the five senses or the six regions of the brain or the 206 bones in the body. There’s no exact number because different psychologists group these skills together in different ways. Also, there are a few types of mental skills that some psychologists say are executive functions but others say aren’t. If you want to witness a passionate debate, just get a few neuropsychologists together over some beers and ask, “Hey, is processing speed an executive function?” and watch the sparks fly.
Here is a list of 11 executive functions in the approximate order that they develop, as not all kids develop EFs in the same order. The earliest EFs start to show up around age 3 and most of them don’t finish developing until early adulthood. Children benefit the most when they get just enough support that they can succeed with their new skills but not so much support that you’re doing all the work for them. Finding this perfect balance is a concept known as scaffolding. And finally, remember that kids have an amazing ability to develop skills and then hide them on you just when you wish they’d show them off for Grandma.
· Impulse Control or Response Inhibition – One of the earliest EFs to develop. Thinking before acting. For a very young child, this means keeping hands to self, for older child it means not calling out answers in class.
· Working Memory – Keeping and organizing material in short term memory. Very young children can remember a one-step direction while they’re completing it, 4-year-olds can remember two-step directions, slightly older kids can remember strings of numbers backwards, and early grade school kids can begin to do “mental math."
· Novel Problem Solving – Figuring out how to solve a new problem or attack an issue you’ve never dealt with before. Young children do this with creative play; this becomes more sophisticated with school-age children.
· Cognitive Flexibility – Shifting between tasks/switching rules on a task. Young children demonstrate this when they engage in pretend play and they show that they can think about different uses for the same object. Also requires some degree of emotional regulation.
· Goal Setting and Execution – Coming up with a plan and working toward it. In younger kids, this might mean saving up an allowance for a toy. Younger kids require coaching and redirection for this skill, but 6- and 7-year olds can set a small goal and work toward it with minimal help.
· Emotional Regulation – Being able to recover from disappointment/ability to manage strong emotions (appropriate to age and situation). Emotional regulation begins to develop in early childhood and changes significantly throughout childhood.
· Sustained Attention – Paying attention to something even though it might not be the most interesting thing. Three- and 4-year-olds generally require redirection. Five-year-olds can do about five minutes.
· Task Initiation – Getting started on something that you don’t want to do, without being told you have to do it. This starts to develop around age 6, but even adults can have challenges with this.
· Organization – Putting things away with some sense of order, keeping track of things. Young children can put things away with direction, but the EF of Organization doesn’t really start to develop until age 6.
· Perception of Time – Awareness of how much time has passed and how long activities will take. Starts to develop around age 7.
· Metacognition or Self-Monitoring – “Thinking about your own thinking,” taking a bird’s eye view, or keeping track of progress. Starts to develop around age 7 or 8. For example, a child who knows that she has difficulty learning how to spell words would decide to break a word down into its parts (or use some other strategy) to make sure she does well on her spelling test.