What is executive functioning? It’s our mission control, our conductor, our super-programmer. It’s what keeps us ticking in a way that not only keeps us alive and comfortable, but lets us know when we are crossing a line socially, ethically and morally. It helps us be organised, control the impulse to do/say something, and to monitor and control our emotional responses. There are a few key skills involved:
Planning and setting priorities – Children with poor planning abilities often have difficulty coming up with logical plans to achieve a goal. Their plans may be overly simple, or overly complex and hard to follow. They may have difficulty prioritising what step/task is the most important to complete; in a time-limited environment they may not get essential jobs done as they have focused on less important tasks.
Initiation– Children with poor initiation often have a sound understanding of instructions, or great plans for tasks, but struggle to take the first step to action the plan. Once started, they are able to complete steps.
Organisation – Children with poor organisation skills may lose belongings, lose track of time, have trouble gathering materials for lessons/activities/tasks, or be late to class due to getting lost between classes.
Self-Monitoring – Children with poor self-monitoring skills often struggle to complete tasks to an expected standard, forget to complete tasks such as homework assignments, or forget to take them back to school. They may also not notice when they have been distracted, continuing to carry out tasks other than what they originally set out to do. Their work is often incorrectly described as rushed, sloppy, or they may be considered lazy.
Flexible thinking– Children with poor flexibility in thinking may become flustered or confused when there is an unexpected change in routines, rules or settings. They are often described as quite ‘rigid’.
Working Memory – Children with poor working memory may have difficulty carrying out instructions with two or more steps, or struggle with subjects such as maths where they must keep subtotals stored in their head to keep adding to. They may appear lazy, dependent or forgetful.
Impulse Control – Children who experience poor impulse control may have difficulty stopping themselves from saying or doing something which they know is wrong, such a fidgeting with items and breaking them, becoming distracted and walking away in busy places, saying hurtful comments, physically hurting people, or struggling to stay focused when there is something more interesting happening around them.
Emotional Control (or self-regulation) – Often, children who have difficulty with self-regulation may experience intense emotions that can overwhelm them. They may struggle to recognise emotions, find appropriate ways to respond, or to recover from emotional experiences. They may be described as dramatic, explosive, or highly-strung.
What happens when mission control has clocked off for the day?
It’s 8:15am on a school day. Everyone has had breakfast, the dishes are done, lunch boxes are packed, you’ve ironed your shirt and put on your make-up, and the kids have been in their rooms getting themselves ready for school for the last half hour. You pop down to check on them; your daughter (for the purposes of this blog only!) is still in her pyjamas, playing with her pony. You leave the room to help her brother, and she starts to cry.
What on earth is going on??? She’s able to get herself dressed in the weekends without any worries, but school days seem to be all the same.
Yesterday you tidied her room. Her toys had been everywhere (organisation), it was such a mess! Now they are nicely put away on the shelf. She can see all her toys – they are so colourful! While she was trying to figure out whether to take off her PJs or get out her clothes (prioritisation), she spotted her pony on the shelf. She only went to look at the pony, but then she noticed the comb there too. There was a knot in the tail – it needed to be combed! (Prioritising, self-monitoring, impulse control). It’s now got a pretty hat and a dress on. It’s looking fabulous!
When you walked in she felt really ashamed of herself for forgetting to get dressed, and time’s running out, she’s in a rush and she can’t think. She’s looking like she’s about to blow! (Emotional control – this isn’t a tantrum, this is a meltdown). You get her dressed and help her pack her bag. By the time you leave the house, she’s chatting away happily again.
Do you experience these sorts of issues in your home?
Executive functioning issues are common in children with neurological and learning differences such a dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD/ADD, autism and mood disorders. They are also common in gifted children, particularly where their development is significantly asynchronous (different areas developing at different rates).
However, it’s important to remember that all people (children and adults) have days when they are not performing at their best, and executive functioning is a skill that is not fully developed until early adulthood. When children and teens are
experiencing this every day and are getting frustrated with themselves, it’s affecting their self-esteem or significantly limiting their independence, that’s when it’s worth exploring what may be driving their disorganisation, ‘big emotions’ or poor impulse control.