Importance of Executive Functioning

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Executive functioning is a term psychologists use to describe the many tasks our brains perform that are necessary to think, act, and solve problems. Executive functioning includes tasks that help us learn new information, keep new or recent information in our minds, and use this information to solve problems of everyday life.

A person's executive functioning skills make it possible for them to live, work, and learn with an appropriate level of independence and competence for their age. Executive functioning allows people to access information, think about solutions, and implement those solutions.

What Is Executive Functioning?

Because executive functioning is a theory and not a fully defined, documented, and verified phenomenon, psychologists have differing opinions about which mental processes are involved. However, the following list contains functions that are often included in this category.

Executive Functioning Abilities

Executive functioning may involve abilities such as:

  • Focusing on relevant sights, sounds, and physical sensory information
  • Organizing one's environment or schedule
  • Inhibiting behavior that flouts social expectations and norms
  • Planning for the future
  • Mentally evaluating the possible outcomes of different problem-solving strategies
  • Choosing actions based on the likelihood of positive outcomes
  • Estimating time and effort necessary to achieve outcome
  • Initiating tasks necessary to carry out decisions

That's an impressive list, and most of us do this without knowing it. In people without executive functioning problems, the brain performs these tasks quickly in the subconscious, often without their awareness.

Problems With Executive Functioning

People with executive functioning problems do not perform these tasks intuitively. They can have difficulty with planning, organizing their space, and managing their time. They may also show difficulties in working memory.

As with many other types of neurological conditions, executive functioning problems can run in families. Executive dysfunction can be seen at any age but become more obvious as children reach mid to upper elementary grades. Adults may have difficulty with executive functions after a traumatic brain injury or the onset of dementia.

How It Affects Learning

In school, at home, or in the workplace, we're called on all day to self-regulate our behavior. This can be difficult for people with executive functioning challenges. Here are some signs to look for:

  • Difficulty in planning and completing projects
  • Problems understanding how long a project will take to complete
  • Struggling with telling a story in the right sequence with important details and minimal irrelevant details
  • Trouble communicating details in an organized, sequential manner
  • Problems initiating activities or tasks, or generating ideas independently
  • Difficulty retaining information while doing something with it such as remembering a phone number while dialing

How Problems With Executive Functioning Are Identified

There is no one agreed-upon assessment that measures all of the different features of executive functioning. As such, identifying executive functioning issues will likely involve multiple tests and evaluations. Careful observation and working closely with a special education teacher are helpful in identifying executive functioning problems.

Strategies to Help

There are many effective strategies that may help individuals cope with executive dysfunction. Here are just a few:

  • Give clear step-by-step instructions with visual organizational aids. Children with executive dysfunction may not make logical leaps to know what to do. Be as explicit as possible with instructions. Use visual models and hands-on activities when possible. Adjust your level of detail based on the student's success.
  • Use planners, organizers, computers, or timers.
  • Provide visual schedules and review them at least every morning, after lunch, and in the afternoon. Review more frequently for people who need those reminders.
  • Pair written directions with spoken instructions and visual models whenever possible.
  • If possible, use a daily routine.
  • Create checklists and "to do" lists.
  • Use positive reinforcement to help kids stay on task.
  • Break long assignments into smaller tasks and assign mini-timelines for completion of each. If children become overwhelmed with lists of tasks, share only a few at a time.
  • Use visual calendars or wall planners to keep track of long-term assignments, deadlines, and activities.
  • Adults and teens may find time management planners, software, or apps helpful. If possible, try before you buy to figure out which type of planner works best for you.
  • Organize the workspace, and minimize clutter on a weekly basis.
  • Consider having separate work areas with complete sets of supplies for different activities. This reduces time lost while searching around for the right materials for a task.
  • Try to keep your strategies consistent across classrooms, at home, or in the workplace. People with executive functioning issues are more likely to do well when their routines are similar in different settings.

As with all interventions, it is important to be aware of how they affect the person with the executive dysfunction. If the person is not helped with the strategy or is making no progress after a reasonable amount of time, look for a better way.

Older children and adults may be able to help identify additional strategies or ways to adjust strategies for more effectiveness. Considering their preferences is an important part of developing an appropriate intervention program.

One of the most important things to remember about executive dysfunction is that this is as much of a disability as any other. Although it is an invisible disability, it can have a profound effect on all aspects of a person's life. Be prepared to share this information with teachers, coworkers, or supervisors as needed to ensure the symptoms are not mistaken for laziness or carelessness.

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  3. National Center for Learning Disabilities. Executive Function Fact Sheet. Learning Disabilities Online. 2008.