Episode 13: Executive Functions
My previous post on EF can be found here.
EF skills are a set of skills that are important for long-term outcomes. To better support the development of EF skills in youth, it helps to give them some autonomy and to praise their efforts (which also promotes a growth mindset). Exposure to various situations involving problem-solving could also be beneficial (e.g., puzzles).
Specific activities that can help develop EF skills can be found in a free document by Harvard. In short, they recommend use of imaginary play, hiding games, matching/sorting games, and so on. Simon Says is a good example of a game that requires inhibition.
If necessary, professional services are also available to assist with developing EF skills in youth (e.g., executive coaches, cognitive remediation programs). However, these are generally designed for those with severe challenges (e.g., victims of traumatic brain injury).
If you are concerned about a child's EF development, consider having them go through a neuropsychological assessment. Neuropsychologists are very familiar with EF skills and can help not only determine which ones may be difficult for your child but they can also give specific recommendations.
Apologies for some of my audio being a little warped and inconsistent in quality. I'm using my laptop to record, and it causes that inconsistency. My plan is to get a proper microphone once I'm able to reach my goal on Patreon.
Executive functions (EF) are a set of skills that are linked to long-term outcomes and success. I wrote about these skills in a previous blog post, which you can find here. To summarize, executive functions are a set of skills that deal with higher-level processing of information. After the brain takes in basic information (e.g., the sight of numbers on a page), EF works through that information and helps to make sense of it (e.g., doing mental math with those numbers).
There's no agreement on how many executive functions there are, and some people combine them together in different ways. However, based on what I've seen in the literature, these skills are pretty commonly discussed:
- Working memory
- Holding information in short-term memory and doing something with it (e.g., mental math)
- Blocking an initial urge to do something in favor of doing something else (e.g., resisting temptations)
- Changing focus and mindset (e.g., transitioning to a new task or subject)
- Ability to focus without distraction
- Ability to sequence events, estimate outcomes, and decide on the best course of action
- Identifying ways to group things that are meaningful and efficient
What I want to discuss in more detail in this episode is how these skills develop, and how you can help a child improve their executive functioning.
First, some brief history. Many of the executive functioning skills depend fairly heavily on the front part of the brain, known as the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC). This area of the brain is the last to mature, with a lot of its development occurring during adolescence. So in the past, it was assumed that executive functioning skills "emerged" in adolescence and developed from there.
However, we now know that executive functions require all areas of the brain, even if the PFC is one of the most important areas. Because of that, there's little reason to assume that EF skills don't show up until adolescence. In fact, some studies have found evidence of early EF in preschool children. Rather than EF as a whole developing in adolescence, it is now believed that different skills develop at different times, probably in part due to their reliance on one another.
For example, impulse control is one of the first skills to develop. Think about a child who is in a room with a marshmallow. They are told not to eat the marshmallow, and then they are left alone in the room with the marshmallow. This has actually been done in various research studies, and some kids are able to resist the temptation to eat the marshmallow while others are not. These studies are often looking at a child's ability to delay gratification, but we can also see it as a measure of the ability to inhibit their impulses.
After a child has at least rudimentary impulse control, then some other skills can develop further. For example, selective attention requires inhibiting the impulse to focus on distractions. Switching also requires inhibiting what is currently being focused on in favor of focusing on the next thing. Further down the road, planning and organization require a broader awareness of self and things in the world, so those skills tend to develop closer to adolescence and into adulthood.
So that means you can do things to help a child develop their EF skills starting at an early age, and pretty much throughout their life. A few different things have been shown to influence EF skills, some of which you may have control over and some not. One of the things that has been linked to EF skill development early in life is level of autonomy. If kids are given the ability to explore their world safely, then they are able to develop better EF skills early on.
Another tactic you can use to help children develop EF skills is to put an emphasis on encouraging their effort when working through something difficult, especially academically. Just like any other skill, EF skills improve over time as they are practiced. If a child is struggling with something academically (and sometimes socially), it can very often be due to some challenges related to an EF skill (along with some other things, depending on the situation). What you want to encourage is for the child to work through those challenges so they can develop their EF skills.
Adults often praise children based on their outcomes (e.g., grades, how well they completed a chore). This can be helpful, but it can also be discouraging for children who are struggling with doing well on something. So instead of focusing on the outcome, you want to focus more on their effort. Even if their final product is of low quality, you should be enthusiastic and provide praise for the effort that went into it (assuming they did put in effort).
Taking this approach not only helps to encourage the development of EF skills, but it also creates a growth mindset. That's a whole different topic to discuss in a future episode, but which I briefly wrote about previously.
For young children, it can be helpful to play various games that incorporate EF skills. Harvard has a free PDF available that goes through different activities that are appropriate for different ages, but some of these include: Simon Says, matching games, and imaginary play.
Another approach goes beyond what you are likely able to do, and that's to get some professional assistance. For example, there are executive coaches who can work with a child on developing their organization skills. Tutors, teachers, therapists, and so on can also serve a similar role. If executive functions are reduced after something like a traumatic brain injury, there are also cognitive remediation services that can help with EF skills and more.
But before signing up for EF services, consider bringing your child for a neuropsychological assessment if you have concerns. Neuropsychologists are vary familiar with EF skills, as deficits in executive functions often look like other problems (e.g., ADHD). By going through a neuropsychological assessment, you can find out exactly which EF skills (if any) are problematic. Then the neuropsychologist can provide you with specific recommendations to address the weaknesses.