Do you have a child in your life who is a bit “all over the place”? Is he a “paper stuffer”? When you enter his room, do you have to push open the door because it is such a mess? We can share frustrations and laugh about these kids but these tendencies will cause many problems as they grow and develop into adults. If you are in this boat, then the issue is one of executive function.
What is executive functioning, you ask? Consider this post an introductory guide to executive function, what it means, signs of executive dysfunction, and strategies to develop these skills in kids who are struggling. Are you concerned about your child's executive functioning skills? Well, wait a minute, before you go down a rabbit hole, what is executive function?
In most cases, there's nothing to worry about; every child develops differently, and some children just need special forms of attention to inspire their abilities.
Some persistent deficiencies in executive function, however, can be indicative of a serious learning disorder, so it's important to learn more about executive skills and how to foster these skills in your child if he or she seems to be behind. So, let's dig a bit deeper.
What is Executive Functioning?
The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University defines executive function skills as “the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.” These skills allow us to focus on particular details, prioritize effectively, and enforce delayed gratification to make sure that things get done.
Executive skills aren't innate. While some children have more potential to develop effective executive skills than others, these skills are largely a product of a child's upbringing and environment.
The most important factor in the development of these skills is a child's interaction with adults; if this interaction is, on the whole, positive and constructive, a child's development of executive skills will be unimpeded. However, factors like toxic stress, neglect, and abuse can harm the development of executive functioning in children.
These negative factors can prevent normal brain growth and cause children to exhibit hyperactive or disruptive behaviors. Impediments to the normal development of executive functioning in young children can have continuing negative effects throughout a child's developing and adult years, so learning about the symptoms of poor executive functioning and the strategies that can be used to improve this critical developmental factor can help parents and caregivers guide at-risk children back on positive developmental tracks.
What Is Executive Function Disorder?
Also known as EFD, this condition is often associated with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) because ADHD is considered to be a type of executive function impairment. A child may be considered to have EFD when his or her executive functioning abilities are significantly behind the usual rate of development.
According to the ADD publication ADDitude, children start developing executive functions at age two, and these functions continue to develop until age 30. This source estimates that ADHD can delay the development of executive functioning by up to 40 percent, and it's believed that EFD may be linked to poor development in the prefrontal cortex.
Executive Function Skills
There are seven types of skills that are associated with executive function.
These skills are:
- Non-verbal working memory
- Verbal working memory
- Emotional intelligence
- Planning and problem solving
In children with EFD, most or all of these executive skills are inhibited. By using various exercises and techniques, it may be possible to boost or restore executive skills in affected children.
Symptoms of Executive Function Disorder
While children with ADHD often have trouble paying attention to activities in the present, children with EFD have an inability to plan for the future. Children with this disorder have trouble setting schedules or staying organized, and they may habitually lose personal items.
Signs of Executive Function Disorder
Some common signs of EFD include:
- Not able to effectively analyze a task
- Failure to develop an effective plan for taking care of a task
- Inability to plan out specific steps necessary to complete a task
- Failure to develop reasonable timelines for achieving tasks
- Unable to adapt to new conditions or adjust procedures when achieving a task
- Failure to complete tasks on time
In young children, EFD may show itself in the form of angry or frustrated behavior. Young children with EFD may have trouble handling setbacks, and they may throw tantrums over seemingly minimal issues.
Instead of capably expressing their emotions with words or other socially acceptable mediums of expression, children with EFD may act aggressively. They may also be resistant to the normal flow of classroom behavior, and they may stubbornly choose to act on their own impulses rather than follow the established protocols.
As children with EFD get older and enter grade school, they become highly resistant to any changes in routine, and their organization difficulties become more pronounced. Older children with EFD may also be unwilling to abandon plans even when they have clearly failed.
During middle school and high school, these failures to adapt to social norms and produce achievements that are on par with their peers cause children with EFD to become increasingly socially withdrawn. They may engage in risky behaviors, and they may have trouble choosing careers or holding down jobs.
What Kids with Executive Dysfunction Need Most
- Systems on which to rely
- Growth Mindset
- Baby Steps – in other words, celebrating small victories with your child. The development of these skills is not going to happen overnight. Often it takes years, so acknowledge baby steps and lean into positive behavior is a big way for a while
Executive Function Skill Development
So what are the important skills on which to focus?
Here is a short list:
- Ability to plan ahead
- Time management
- Prioritize tasks
- Decision making
- Able to inhibit thoughts & actions, not be impulsive
- Focus & attention
- Juggling memory
- Follow through
- Reflectiveness (this is where mindfulness exercises come in really handy)
- Regulating emotion
Executive Functioning Strategies
Since the ultimate origin of most instances of EFD is in care deficiencies at an early age, the best way to fight back against EFD is to make sure that at-risk children are exposed to the right forms of adult interaction. Once it's clear that EFD is interfering with a child's ability to learn and develop socially, it may be useful to enlist the assistance of speech therapists, reading tutors, or psychologists.
In-class behavioral modification techniques, such as daily report cards and token systems, may be effective executive functioning strategies to help children with EFD achieve normative social adaptation. As children with EFD get older and become adults, the use of external information crutches like cards, smartphone apps, and sticky notes may assist in improving focus and motivation.
Lastly, children with EFD may be responsive to the same stimulant drugs that are used to treat ADHD. As in all cases of behavioral issues, however, drugs should be relied on as a last resort after behavioral modification and positive forms of adult support have failed.
Create a System for Your Child
Bottom line, a child needs to create a system that works for him. This system may include:
- a paper management system
- a binder system (this doesn't work for most children with executive functioning disorder)
- a folder system with specific labels written in large print with the name of the subject and the child
- grade monitoring
- self-advocacy when his body doesn't quite feel right and he is unable to focus, ask the teacher or parent to take a break, drink some water, grab a fidget, or use headphones
- secure study space that works for the child perhaps near natural light, in a cozy chair, with a divider, with headphones
- weekly overhaul to clean out the backpack, desk, cubby, etc
- daily check-ins asking the questions: What is my most important thing today? What am I forgetting?
- create a today list every day with no more than 4 items in order to avoid overwhelm
- chunking by time and task using a timer
- less is more, so taking the time to declutter every week
Effective Executive Function Activities
There are a variety of activities that may assist a child with EFD in attaining normative cognitive and social development. Here are some examples of effective executive function activities:
#1 – Skill-Building Games
There are a number of different board games and other types of games that you can play with your child to encourage the healthy development of executive skills. While it's unclear how much these games actually improve the symptoms of EFD, they provide opportunities to spend quality time with your child, which will certainly improve his or her social adaptability and overall happiness.
#2 – Competitive Sports
Competitive sports have been identified as some of the best EFD-fighting activities. These types of activities assist children in developing social skills, and they also boost cognitive flexibility and anticipation.
While any type of physical exercise will help with the symptoms of EFD by improving overall health, team sports allow children to become closer to their peers and learn more about working together to achieve shared goals. It isn't necessary to compete in physical sports; any type of competitive activity, such as chess, will improve executive functioning in children.
#3 – Musical Activities
It has long since been concluded that music helps improve brain functioning, and listening to music can help children with EFD focus and regulate their emotions. The benefits of music become even more pronounced, however, when you encourage your child with EFD to learn how to play an instrument.
#4 – Creative Outlets
Drawing, building, and designing whether in 2D or 3D are enormously helpful for a high performing child with executive function dysfunction. In many cases, children with executive dysfunction are also gifted, which means their brain is often on fire. Therefore, the adults in their lives need to make certain these children have outlets.
The Most Critical Piece of Helping a Child with Executive Function
I attended a conference on parenting gifted children recently. One of the presenters, Seth Perler, focused his presentation (and life's work for that matter) on helping gifted children with these gaps in executive function. I took away a ton from his talk. His main takeaway for me and one I believe he emphasized was our relationship with the child matters the most.
These children struggle with overwhelming emotions, depression, anxiety, poor self-image, and so on. These children experience and feel the world differently than we do. As we work with them through the process of developing their weaknesses into strengths, we need to be developing a strong, solid, loving, genuine relationship with them. Furthermore, don't allow the child to define himself or be defined by his giftedness or “disability”. It was a powerful way to end his extremely practical talk outlining helpful strategies for teachers and parents.