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Executive functioning is a group of skills that are responsible for guiding, directing, and managing cognitive, emotional, and behavioral functioning. Research in the last few years has placed emphasis on executive functioning as a crucial part of a child's functioning in school. Not only is higher intelligence (strong skills in problem solving, reasoning, using language, thinking abstractly, and acquiring new skills and information) a part of a child’s recipe for success, being able to apply those mental resources in an organized and efficient way (executive functioning) has been found to be critical to academic success as well. There are as many as 11 distinct executive functioning abilities which develop sequentially.They are:
1. Response Inhibition is the suppression of one's behavior over another in order to meet a goal. Sometimes this is also referred to as impulse control.
2. Working memory refers to the ability to temporarily hold information in the memory while in the process of performing some other complex activity.
3. Self regulation of affect is the ability to control feelings effectively in order to manage behavior and meet goals.
4. Sustained attention involves maintaining focus and attention on task despite distractions.
5. Task initiation is the ability to initiate a task without procrastination.
6. Planning involves developing a set of strategies for accomplishing a goal and prioritizing these strategies according to the task demands.
7. Organization is the capacity to systematically arrange all aspects of an activity to meet a goal.
8. Time management involves responding to tasks in a timely fashion, estimating the time needed to complete them, and using a schedule to meet goals.
9. Goal directed persistence refers to the ability to set a reachable goal and show ongoing effort and attention to meet the goal.
10. Flexibility is being adaptable to the demands of the situation by disengaging or activating information or strategies as needed.
11. Metacognition is the process of observing and assessing one’s actions in order to determine their effectiveness.
In addition to their academic applications, you may have noticed that these types of skills are important in many aspects of life, such as generally getting along with others as well as in establishing and maintaining long-term relationships. Because of this, some studies have suggested a link between executive functioning and social competence.
Students lacking executive functioning skills are likely to experience significant difficulties. These deficits have been observed in children with a broad range of disorders and problems such as ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, schizophrenia, traumatic brain injury, epilepsy, aggression, anxiety disorders, mood disorders, Tourette’s disorder, learning disabilities, sleep problems, and other medical conditions. This is not to say that if your child struggles with executive functioning skills that they necessary have one of these conditions!
As you read through this list, you may have found things you personally exhibit a strength or weakness in, and that is totally normal. You may have made a mental checklist of your child's abilities in these areas as well. We all have certain cognitive functions that are better developed than others and hopefully, as adults, we have found ways to compensate for our weaknesses and have likely chosen a life path and career that utilizes our strengths. For a child, this can be much more difficult as the maturity and ability to reflect on one’s own abilities is limited and makes it difficult to work through some of these challenges. There are compensatory strategies to offer as well as ways to increase these skills.
Now that you know what these skills are called and why they are important, you will be better able to get your child support for areas where there may be deficits. If you have significant concerns, certainly talk to your child’s teacher and possibly use your local school psychologist as a resource. As with most struggles, the earlier you can obtain intervention, the better!
Jessica Martin, Ed.S., NCSP
RVA School Psychologist/Director of Special Education & Student Services
*Some of the information from this article was derived from the WSPA Sentinel 2012.