Dr. Rick Shade and Diana Caldeira
How many of you have ever wondered . . . “He has an IQ of 137, but why can’t he get his assignments turned in on time?” Perhaps this sounds familiar . . . “She forgets how to continue an activity she has started, even though I explained all the steps to her.” Knowing what to do and when to do it, in essence, how we each navigate daily life is called Executive Function (EF).
All of us possess the skills of Executive Function. We take most of these skills for granted, however some of us may struggle to varying degrees with one or more. EF skills come into play in three broad areas: learning, behavior, and social situations. The definition we will use in this article is “Executive Function is a set of mental processes that help us connect past experiences with present action.” We use these learned skills to make plans, set goals, keep track of time, complete tasks, and much more.
So What Are These Executive Function Skills?
There are nine major EF skills:
- Attention (Obtaining and Maintaining)
- Inhibition & Impulse Control
- Initiation & Persistence
- Goal Setting & Prioritizing
- Planning & Organization
- Time Management
- Flexible Thinking
- Self-Regulation & Monitoring
- Working Memory
Later we will provide a description, examples and some useful tips for each area.
So What’s the Problem?
Many of us have some of these skills occurring simultaneously. For example, let’s say you have a meeting with co-workers Wednesday morning. You prepare for this meeting physically and mentally. You have your materials gathered, you know how to get to the meeting, you arrive on time, you keep track of time during the meeting, you take notes, you follow meeting norms and communication protocols, and you leave knowing what you have to do prior to the next meeting.
To be able to successfully participate in the meeting described above, you also have a set of mental filters that help control the stream of events. Think of it as a funnel, allowing information and processes to flow smoothly into your brain. You have effective and efficient EF skills! However, if you (or a student) have some trouble with one or more of these skills, the funnel may quickly become clogged!
Pinpointing the Problem
Besides trying to determine which of the nine EF skills your child might be having the most difficulty with, you also have to take the next step and ask yourself these four important questions:
- Does your child simply not understand what you are asking him to do? TIP: Ask him to repeat the instructions back to you.
- Does he know what to do, but not how to do it?
- Is he confused about the order of steps? TIP: Give a prompt such as “First, you need to do this.”
- Is the problem motivation? (Does he not care or see the value in doing the task).
Once you pinpoint the actual problem, you can begin to address it more effectively.
#1 – Attention (Obtaining and Maintaining)
You cannot communicate with or teach to anyone anything unless you first have their attention. Once you have it, your main job is to help the learner maintain it. The major challenge with this is knowing someone’s “alertness level.” As most of us know, this varies throughout the day. At times we are alert, dull, groggy, tired or sleepy. The goal is to have sustained attention in spite of fatigue, distractibility and boredom. However there are a number of distractions to focused attention. See if you can identify those distractions that interfere with your child’s attention.
- First pay attention to your child’s “alertness level” by tracking it at home for several days. Notice patterns. When is she very alert and engaged? When is she tired or slow? When is she really sleepy?
- How much sleep is your child getting? Experts are now saying American adults and children get too little sleep.
- Children and adults can often fall to sleep sooner and sleep longer if they eliminate ALL electronic devices (Phone, computer, tablet, TV, etc.) at least one hour before bedtime. Play a board game or read a book instead.
#2 – Inhibition & Impulse Control
Inhibition and Impulse Control is the ability to stop and think before acting. How many times have you wished you had paused and thought for a moment before doing or saying something to a friend, boss or colleague?
Children often say or do things without using a cushion of time to reflect. They’ll do whatever pleasurable thing comes along without considering their obligations or commitments. Children with this weakness often speed through schoolwork, sacrificing accuracy and completeness along the way.
- When children develop an understanding of the difference between feelings and behaviors, it can help them control their impulses. A child who understands it is OK to feel mad, but not OK to hit, he can see that he has choices about how to deal with his feelings without reacting impulsively.
- Sometimes children behave impulsively because they don’t listen to the directions. Before you’ve finished your sentence, they are up and moving without really hearing what you said. Teach your child to listen to the directions first by having them repeat back what they’ve heard before they take action.
- When children learn problem-solving skills, they’ll learn how to think before they act. Teach your child how to develop several solutions to a problem and then analyze which solution is likely to have the best outcome. Then, instead of instinctively hitting a peer who cuts in front of him in line, he can problem-solve several different ideas of how he can respond.
- Lack of frustration tolerance can be a big factor in impulse control. Teach your child how to manage his anger so he can calm himself down when he’s upset. Time outcan be a great way for kids to learn how to calm themselves down, as long as it is used as a consequence and not a punishment.
- Developing clear rules can help children have a better understanding of what is expected of them. When kids know that there is no hitting allowed, they are less likely to hit. Make it clear what the consequenceswill be if the rules are broken and your child will be less likely to break the rules.
- Playing games provides a young child with a fun way to practice impulse control. Games such as Simon Says, Red Light Green Light, or Follow the Leader require impulse control.
#3 – Initiation & Persistence
Task Initiation is the ability to recognize when it is time to begin a task without procrastinating. Children weak in this skill have trouble starting homework or put off projects until the last minute. They are sometimes seen as lazy or unmotivated. Keep in mind that children like this may procrastinate because they don’t know how to start. Some also have trouble planning and organizing. They can get overwhelmed by everything they have to do so they end up doing nothing at all. Task Initiation relies on planning to manage an awareness of time and is jump-started by an active working memory (discussed later).
Persistence is sticking to the task. Sometimes we have to explain to children the notion of hard work. Everyone gets to a point in a task when they get frustrated. This is the easy time to give up. We all need to learn ways to “push through” until the task is completed.
- Praise children’s efforts: “Look how hard you’ve been trying to put that puzzle together. You’re almost finished.” “You didn’t give up until you got just the right color. You must be very proud.”
- Help children identify successful strategies for problem-solving: “It really helps when you look for the very first letter of your name to find your cubby.” “Let’s repeat the directions together, so everyone will know what to do next.”
- Offer praise that is specific and meaningful to what a child has actually done: “You really had to push hard to turn the pedals.” “You all spoke in such a kind, gentle way when Jose hurt his foot.” Avoid vague words like “Nice” and exaggerated praise, such as “You’re the best painter in the whole world.”
#4 – Goal Setting & Prioritizing
Categorizing activities is an important part of the prioritization process, as it provides a foundation on which students can build their schedules. Once tasks have been grouped according to importance, students can rely on their knowledge of time and task to allot the appropriate amount of time for each activity. Obligatory tasks should be accomplished first, followed by aspirational ones.
Obligation: These activities are time sensitive mandatory tasks, such as homework, jobs or chores. For some students, enrichment activities like soccer or violin practice may fall in to the obligation category.
Aspiration: These activities are enjoyable, interesting and important but not obligatory. These activities might include attending a friend’s birthday party, going to a concert, or watching a favorite TV show.
Negotiation: These activities do not have immediate time constraints and are flexible (e.g. putting together a model robot). These activities are not as critical as obligatory or aspirational tasks.
- Set realistic goals
- Begin with the end in mind (Backwards Planning)
- Prioritize long and short term tasks (day-to-day)
- Select most important information in notes
- Acknowledge deadlines (intrinsically set or imposed)
#5 – Planning & Organization
Planning is the ability to create steps to reach a goal. Children who have difficulty planning and setting priorities are easily overwhelmed by complicated, multi-part tasks. They can’t independently impose structure and order on ideas. They have trouble thinking through the steps required to achieve a goal. They tend to underestimate a project’s complexity and time requirements.
Organization is the ability to create and maintain systems to keep track of information or materials. Students need this skill for homework, studying, writing and especially for completing long-term projects.
- Use file-sharing software like Drop Box to keep notes handy anywhere there’s an internet connection.
- Smartphone APPS can serve as digital sticky notes or bulletin boards.
- Digital flashcards, available as APPS or on smartphones, may be helpful.
- Password manager software can keep track of passwords.
#6 – Time Management
Parents are an important part of the overall plan to improve time management skills. Their role is to model and monitor. Good models uses time devices (clocks, watcher, phones), appointment books, plan time aloud, post calendars with family schedules and have scheduled routines at home. Parents can also model time planning by thinking aloud as they plan their own activities. Make your child aware of how you schedule routine activities by saying, “I have to pick up your dad at 6:15at the airport. It’s 4:30 now. It usually takes 45 minutes to get there. I’ll add on another 15 minutes for rush hour traffic. I think I’ll leave here at 5:15”
- Set time limits for the overall activity.
- Set time limits for each step in the activity.
- Have students predict the time needed to complete task as a practice exercise.
- Teach the student how to use the planner! (No one is born knowing how to do this).
- Teachers and parents – check that students are using the planner and using it correctly!
- Look into using a phone APP or a digital calendar.
#7 – Flexible Thinking
Flexible Thinking is the ability to change strategies or revise plans when conditions change. Children who behave in ways that are inflexible have trouble when a familiar routine is disrupted or a task becomes complicated. They get frustrated when a first attempt to solve a problem isn’t successful. They are unable to see new ways to do familiar tasks or to make another choice when the first choice proves unworkable.
Flexible Thinking is so important for academic performance:
- Reading Comprehension – students go back and forth between themes and details and then sift and sort information.
- Written Language – students must learn to balance important concepts and main ideas with supporting details.
- Math Competency –students shift between word meanings, procedures and operations.
- Science and History –students use context clues to prioritize and focus on most relevant information.
- Foreign Language – students shift between their native and the new foreign language.
- Studying and test-taking – students must move back and forth between topics and problems presented in different formats.
- Allow transition time when switching between rest and work.
- Teach several ways to approach a task or solve a problem. Then help your child shift approaches, especially if one approach appears not to be working.
- Stop your child and help him cope with unexpected changes to routines, schedules, homework and projects.
#8 – Self-Regulation & Monitoring
Self-Monitoring is the ability to monitor and evaluate your own performance. Children who are weak at monitoring themselves may not notice that they’re not following directions until someone points this out. They tend to misjudge their own efforts and have trouble adjusting what they’re doing based on feedback or cues. They are often completely surprised by a low grade on a test or project.
- Teach your child how to make and use a checklist.
- Teach your child to talk through a task. Self-talk is often efficient and effective.
- Teach your child how to use a time log for different tasks.
#9 – Working Memory
Working memory is your brain’s Post-it note! We often think of it as short-term memory. You may also think of it as mental juggling. As information comes in, you process it at the same time you are deciding whether or not to store it. Working Memory is the ability to hold information in your mind and use it to complete a task.
Working Memory usually occurs in two forms. Verbal (Auditory) Working Memory taps into our sound (hearing) system. Visual-Spatial Working Memory is a kind of visual sketchpad. We envision something in our “mind’s eye.” We use both when following multi-step directions.
To determine if your child has a problem with working memory, first watch for signs. Students with working memory problems could do the following:
- Abandon activities before completing them.
- Appear to be daydreaming often.
- Fail to complete assignments.
- Raise their hands to answer questions but forget what they wanted to say (This is typical for a 5-year-old, but not for an 11-year-old).
- Mix up material inappropriately – for example, combining two sentences.
- Forget how to continue an activity that they’ve started, even though you have explained the steps.
- Allow the child to use a cell phone or tablet to take a picture of notes.
- Use a tape recorder or cell phone to record a conversation.
- Create checklists with pictures for younger children.
- Focus on a single goal or task to complete. Multitasking is not all it’s cracked up to be!
- Reconsider video games. Some offer good practice for working memory.
- Play board games with your children. Benefits include wait time which aids working memory.
Some educators are now recommending all children be taught EF skills and processes systematically starting in the elementary grades. One reason is that even in early elementary grades teachers are requiring students to complete long-term projects, as well as lengthy reading and writing ones.
It is critical that every child is taught these kinds of strategies. They impact all aspects of student work as they move up in grade levels. Even second grade students are expected to coordinate multiple sub-skills.
We must keep in mind that EF strategies are not a “one size fits all.” For students to use EF strategies effectively, as a first step they must understand their own learning profile and their strengths and weaknesses as well as which strategies work for them.
Dealing with EF can lead children to experience a variety of problems in their friendships, peer relationships and other social interactions. Everyday tasks like sharing, taking turns, picking up on subtle social cues and staying attentive in class can be very difficult for kids who struggle with EF skills.
Perhaps most importantly, teachers and parents must continue to provide consistent and on-going encouragement and support. Children with social challenges may also have low self-esteem. Recognize even the smallest improvement in the student. Knowing you care and notice their progress can be very reassuring.