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What is Executive Function?

What IS “Executive Function” anyway? There certainly is enough talk about it. Once you’ve seen deficits in executive function it’s fairly easy to spot. I have an image in mind of a veil that covers and connects a WIDE variety of thinking skills. It’s how all the earlier developing mental skills work together (or don’t work together) to complete tasks in an organized and efficient manner.

Executive function is the LAST cognitive function to reach maturity.

These higher level thinking skills mainly occur in the prefrontal cortex of the brain which is said not to reach full maturity until into the early to mid TWENTIES!

Girls tend to develop these skills earlier than boys (which can explain a lot of the “poor judgement stereotype” that fall onto teenage boys.

If you are a highly organized and efficient person it can be especially difficult to be around someone that has delays or deficits with executive function.

For a fast paced multi-tasker, these skills seem to develop so naturally. For someone with deficits in executive function the same organization skills and planning can be quite the challenge.

Disorganization is highly common with poor executive function (and particularly difficult for the parents as well…yes, I just said that!)

There’s also a high correlation or “overlap” with ADHD which complicates the home and school scene even further. When ADHD is also present, there can be difficulty maintaining attention long enough to apply the skills needed to be successful in solving multiple step problems despite adequate intelligence. Setting goals or making plans that require sequencing steps depend on self reflection and advanced thinking which require executive functioning.

Imagine cooking many different types of dishes for a Thanksgiving dinner for a large group of people without any cooking experience.

You would need to plan the meal in advance, list and buy the ingredients, organize the timing and order for each step of each item so the meal comes together at the same time. This is intensely demanding on planning, sequencing, and multi-tasking (all of which require executive function).

Imagine having to write an organized essay dependent on extensive research.

Writing an essay requires some sophisticated organization skills (aka Executive Function)

Writing a cohesive essay (or blog for that matter) requires the ability to look at the big picture to organize the smaller details in a sequence that makes sense. If you just listed a bunch of random facts it wouldn’t be easy to understand or enjoyable to read. It would be a fragmented and most likely the intention of the essay wouldn’t shine through well.

Imagine all the steps and important things involved in going on a job interview.

Planning and executing the event of a job interview requires advanced planning of many steps. Writing a resume, figuring out where to send it, sorting important vs. important ideas to spotlight, selecting appropriate clothing are all separate sequences which are part of one bigger sequence. For someone with executive function deficits the task can be overwhelming before even walking in the door.

Executive Function is also about “Cognitive Control”.

Cognitive control develops slowly over time as kids begin to “master their own brain”. It starts developing quite young as children begin to learn to control their temper and replace tantrums with words. Over the years children learn not to act out on all of their thoughts or emotions.

Inhibiting behaviors is as big of a factor as how to act.

Inhibiting behaviors is a learned skill (also known as SELF CONTROL). Without focus or self control it’s unlikely one would hold a job very long at all.

There’s such a wide range of age when kids naturally develop all of these skills that fall under Executive Function. The ones on the lower end of that developmental range usually seem quite immature, scattered, and disorganized compared to their more advanced peers.

Often these kids need direct coaching to learn independent study skills.

When we see some children developing these skills with ease we can tend to get frustrated with those that continue to need extensive support and direct guidance despite their increasing age. It can take a long time for compensatory strategies, verbal coaching and organization plans to “sink in”. That doesn’t mean they aren’t working, sometimes it just takes a while to become an automatic skill set.

There is no commission earned by me suggesting this book but I found the book “Smart but Scattered” to be especially informative on this topic.

Pamela Talbot

Pamela is an ASHA certified Speech-Language Pathologist dually certified as a teacher of the hearing impaired. She is a Listening and Spoken Language LSLS-AVT. Pamela has extensive experience training parents and professionals at the international level.