“We prepare dinner while simultaneously helping our children with their homework and making notes about appointments we need to schedule for the week. We focus on our jobs when we need to and our families when they need us. We remember the phone number that our neighbor just gave us so that we can write it down as soon as we find a pen. We take a deep breath, rather than honk, if the car in front of us fails to move immediately when the light turns green. As adults, our capacities to multitask, to display self-control, to follow multiple-step directions even when interrupted, and to stay focused on what we are doing despite the ever-present distractions are what undergird the deliberate, intentional, goal-directed behavior that is required for daily life and success at work. And while there are cognitive limits to anyone’s ability to multi-task effectively, we need and rely on these basic skills in all areas of our lives. Without them, we could not solve complicated problems and make decisions, persist at tedious and important tasks, make plans and adjust them when necessary, recognize and correct mistakes, control our impulsive behavior, or set goals and monitor our progress toward meeting them. Children need to develop these skills, too, in order to meet the many challenges they will face on the road to becoming productive, contributing members of their communities.”
– Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University
The quote above truly sheds light on the necessity of properly developed executive function skills in order to lead successful, productive lives. But let us backtrack for a moment, what exactly are executive function skills? In brief executive function skills allow us to focus our attention on the tasks at hand, use working memory to retain information, organize and plan, follow multi-step directions, regulate our emotions when necessary, engage in goal-directed behavior, and inhibit impulsivity.
The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University describes executive function in terms of three different dimensions; working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive or mental flexibility. Working memory is described as, “the capacity to hold and manipulate information in our heads over short periods of time.” Inhibitory control is, “the skills we use to master and filter our thoughts and impulses so we can resist temptations, distractions, and habits and to pause and think before we act.” Cognitive or mental flexibility encompasses “the capacity to nimbly switch gears and adjust to changed demands, priorities, or perspectives. It is what enables us to apply different rules in different settings.” In essence, these three dimensions work together and the importance of all three is clear in almost every area of life. Whether it be at school, at work, or even in social situations, executive function skills are needed to manage the necessary tasks and interact appropriately and effectively.
Research evidence supports that we are not born with executive function skills but rather, develop these skills over time. Early childhood years are considered formative for development of executive function skills but the development of these skills tends to continue through adolescents. The good news is that research evidence also supports the success of specialized practice and training in helping with the development of crucial executive function skills. This means that with practice and training, your child can develop the executive function skills needed to be successful and independent in school and beyond.
If you find that your child has difficulty managing and organizing his/her materials, has trouble completing tasks, organizing information, planning assignments, and managing time, it is not the end of the world! With the proper assistance, your child can learn the skills and strategies needed and improve upon his/her executive function skills. We know this to be true because we have helped many students at Wise Learning Center improve executive function skills in Connecticut.
It is often assumed that every child within a classroom already has these skills, that they can follow multi-step directions, plan and organize, and complete tasks without any assistance. The needs of the children who have not developed these skills are often not met, leading teachers and parents to believe that the child is simply lazy or not trying hard enough. At Wise Learning, we realize the importance of focusing on these very skills with our students, clearly explaining each new skill, strategy, or method, and guiding our students through the process of using these skills that are often very new to them. We strive to provide an environment full of encouragement, where our students have the opportunity to practice and eventually become better able to handle their work independently with their newfound skill-set.
If you feel your child is struggling with executive function skills, please feel free to contact us to schedule a consultation. Our team of certified teachers and social workers will create an individualized plan for your child in order to best meet his/her needs.
For more information about executive function skills, including a chart that depicts the ideal developmental trajectory, please click on the following link: http://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/reports_and_working_papers/working_papers/wp11/
We hope you found this edition of our blog to be helpful and informative. If there is a specific topic that you would like to see on our blog, please let us know! Any suggestions can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org
Written By: Jennifer Wilson, LMSW