Crash course: Executive Functions

It’s your choice.

Do you remember what I said?

What do you think we should do?

How are we going to fix this?

You’ve probably said this to your kid (or significant other) many a times, but did you know that these statements and questions engage executive function?

Any goal-driven process or activity that requires conscious thought is utilizing some degree of executive function (a set of mental skills that allow us to appropriately interact with our environment). Look at it like your brain’s upper management or “the executives” in charge of our behavior and cognition as they help plan, organize, and manage many tasks in our everyday life.  

Bloom and Grow

Although genetics does play a role, we develop these cognitive processes through practice and experience. It begins at infancy when we first learn to pay attention to the people around us, mostly parents or caregivers. As we get older, we become familiar with our surroundings, making decisions based off previous experiences (Don’t grab the cat’s tail because they’ll scratch), and coming up with alternative solutions if things don’t go as planned (Instead of jumping to get my juice from the counter, I’ll just use a stool).

As parents, we help our kids strengthen their executive functions in many ways: establishing routines, breaking big tasks into smaller ones, encouraging play activities that promote imagination, following rules, building patience, etc. While these skills rapidly develop between the ages of 3-5 years of age, they still require A LOT of time and practice to grow and refine until early adulthood. Yeah, you read that right. This is where the whole argument of your brain isn’t fully developed until 25 comes from.

What’s Included?

There’s still speculation on what are considered executive functions since it’s a bit of an umbrella term referring to skills involving cognitive control, but it comes down to these three main areas:

  • Working memory – The ability to temporarily retain a small amount of information for immediate mental use (aka the sticky note for your brain). It also helps the brain organize new information for long-term storage.
  • Cognitive flexibility –  Also referred to as flexible thinking, it’s the skill to view an object or situation in multiple ways. This can be seen when your child looks at a stick and finds different ways to use it (lightsaber, fishing rod, baton, etc). You may also see this when they are figuring out how to get down from the jungle gym they decided to climb on top of.
  • Inhibitory control – Also known as self-control, it’s the capacity to stay focused on a task, ignoring distractions and resisting temptation.

These functions are accountable for other cognitive skills, such as:

  • Attention to tasks
  • Prioritizing, planning, and organizing of tasks
  • Initiation and completion of tasks
  • Understanding different points of view
  • Emotional regulation
  • Self-monitoring (keeping track of oneself)

These executive skills reside in the frontal lobe of the brain, specifically in the prefrontal cortex. We have mentioned this region multiple times in previous posts, but that’s how necessary it is to appropriately interpret and function in our world. It is responsible for planning future behaviors while moderating social ones, expressing our personality, and making decisions with the awareness of its consequences. It is in constant communication with other areas of the brain to ensure that we are processing information and responding accordingly.

Keeping Everything in Order

When executive functions are running smoothly, the day runs smoothly. If there’s a blip somewhere in the agenda, we don’t stress. Instead, we adapt. Tasks get finished, we engage and work cooperatively with others, and all is good in the world.

However, if those executive skills are not operating correctly, kids (and adults) can really struggle in school, home, and organized sports/activities. We may notice:

  • Difficulties starting/finishing tasks
  • Trouble with time management
  • Trouble prioritizing tasks
  • Difficulties organizing their thoughts
  • Difficulties recalling information just heard or read
  • Difficulties completing steps to directions in order
  • Rigidity in thought and action, becoming frustrated and upset with sudden changes in routine
  • Trouble switching from one task to another
  • Irrational emotional responses to situations or tasks
  • Difficulties keeping track of belongings

Developmental Activities for Executive Function

Executive skills take time and practice as your child’s prefrontal cortex develops. Every day they wake up, that conscious brain of theirs is open for business, ready to learn and expand its knowledge with each new experience it gets. Your interaction and mentorship with your child are helping to strengthen these neural connections needed to be successful as they grow.

Between 6-18 months, your infant is actively developing the foundation for executive function and self-regulation through responsive engagement with parents and other meaningful adults.

  • Playing games on your lap Like Peek-A-Boo or Pat-A-Cake. Because they are predictable, they help with working memory as they become familiar to the game/song and inhibitory control as they anticipate any surprises.
  • Hiding toys or objects – Assists with working memory
  • Imitation/Copying your actions – Like your child waving to someone because they saw you wave, promoting attention, working memory, self-control.
  • Songs with hand/finger movements – Think Itsy Bitsy Spider or Open, Shut Them. Helps develop self-control, working memory, and language (another cognitive skill).
  • Talking – Like identifying/labeling objects that grab their interest, building attention, working memory, and self-control.

Around 18-36 months, your toddler is rapidly developing their language skills. This allows your child to identify their thoughts, feelings, and actions, provide meaning to them, and using these new words to make organized plans in the future. This also helps your kid understand and follow directions/rules.

  • Whole body movements Think Freeze Dance or Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes. They require sustained attention, inhibiting extraneous sensory stimuli and unnecessary movements.
  • Having conversations – As your child’s language skills develop, so will their want to converse with you and tell you about their day or how they feel.
  • Matching/sorting – This requires your child to understand/follow rules as well as recall organizational characteristics (shape/color/size, etc).
  • Pretend play – Your child may pretend to cook, clean, or fix a car using objects or toys around the house based on what they see you do, utilizing their flexible thinking skills and working memory to do so.

At 3-5 years old, your child’s executive function and self-regulation skills are developing at an accelerated rate. Your kid may start trying to do things independently, requiring trial-and-error opportunities to build their cognitive skills of problem solving and to regulate on their own.

  • Play – They are interested in playing with others and learning to play cooperatively, helping to regulate each other’s behaviors based on the group. This then helps them to develop their self-regulation and control.
  • Storytelling – Your child’s stories may now have organized plots, using their ability to hold and manipulate information in working memory.
  • Mindful activities – Like breathing or yoga as it promotes inhibitory control needed for attention.

Around 5-7 years old, your kid may start to enjoy games that have rules that offer a challenge with a chance of success. This provides opportunities to work on all executive functions, especially since they are now learning to recall and reinforce the rules independently.

  • Card games – Helps with working memory, like Go Fish.
  • Quick response games – Like Perfection or Slapjack, requiring inhibitory control, self-regulation, and attention.
  • Strategy games – Like Checkers, Connect 4, or Battleship, utilizing working memory, cognitive flexibility, and self-control.
  • Physical games – Like Simon Says or Red Light, Green Light, that require attention and self-control.

As your child gets older, they can handle games and activities that are more complex and challenging. They may engage themselves in 100-piece puzzles, show interest in the gaming world (within reason), or want to learn a new skill like playing an instrument or joining a team sport.

Other Strategies

  • Breaking down tasks into smaller ones where your child can be challenged, but still successful.
  • Making to-do lists or setting reminders using the current tech (or good old pen and paper).
  • Limiting distractions when attending to tasks
  • Using rewards as a means of motivation when necessary (Don’t pretend that adults don’t need this type of motivation, too…)

The executive functioning skills that your child is continually strengthening and expanding allows them to become good students, friends, and community citizens as they grow, eventually being able to adult at an expert level. It is important to remember that executive functions are the slowest mental processes to develop and refine; no shortcuts or life hacks. So, give your child time, practice, and understanding, as well as be a good model and coach for them to look up to.

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One Year Ago: Balancing Act: All About Postural Control
Two Years Ago: Creating a Sensory Diet: Arousal and Self-Regulation

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