Executive functioning is the new “hot” umbrella term used by teachers, counselors, and parents to describe a range of learning and attentional problems. Recent neuroscientific research on children and adults implicate failed executive functions, or their lack of engagement, not only in school-related performance issues, but in dysregulated emotional states experienced by those without executive function deficits. Such states are characterized by limited capacity for thought and reflection and automatic, reflexive reactions (Ford, 2010), similar to children with executive function deficits.
Executive functioning is slow to fully develop. It emerges in late infancy, goes through marked changes during the ages of 2 through 6, and does not peak until around age 25. Adolescents’ limited executive functions are out of sync with their emerging freedom, sense of autonomy, intense emotions and sexual drive, failing to equip them with the reins needed to for appropriate restraint and good judgment during this time of temptation. When teens are unable to put the brakes on, they need parents to set external limits and be the stand-in for their underdeveloped executive functions.
Similarly, children with executive function deficits need external cues, prompts and reinformcements to supplant the self-regulatory functions they are lacking internally (Barkley, 2010).
Executive development happens primarily in the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain more sensitive to stress than any other. Unlike anywhere else in the brain, even mild stress can flood the prefrontal cortex with the neurotransmitter dopamine, which causes executive functioning to shut down (Diamond, 2010).
Executive functions include cognitive flexibility, self-control, working memory, planning & self-awareness
What are executive functions anyway? Executive functions together play the role of executive director of the brain — making decisions, organizing, strategizing, monitoring performance and knowing when to start, stop, and shift gears (Cox, 2007, Zelazo, 2010). Executive functioning is essentially the conscious regulation of thought, emotion, and behavior (Zelazo, 2010). It is different from what we usually think of as intelligence, because it is independent of how much we know. It is an aspect of intelligence in that it involves expressing or translating what we know into action (Zelazo, 2010). One can be exceedingly bright but not be able to access and apply knowledge if there is limited executive function.
Key executive functions are: cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control (self-control), working memory, planning, and self-awareness (Zelazo, 2010). Without cognitive flexibility we cannot change our minds, shift attention or perspective, flexibly adapt to changes, see another point of view, solve problems or be creative. The ability to inhibit or control our impulses involves the capacity to stop and think and not act on our first instinct, but, instead, do what is needed or most appropriate. It allows us to direct our attention and be disciplined enough to stay on task even in the face of temptation and distraction, instead of being controlled by habit, feelings and external cues (Zelazo, 2010).
The ability to resist temptation and stay on task is the foundation of planning and being able to follow through on a plan. Additionally, the ability to plan involves being able to anticipate and reflect on the future, keep a goal in mind, and use reasoning to develop a strategy. Working memory allows us to follow instructions involving multiple steps and do them in the right order. It allows us to hold things in mind while relating one thing to another. This capacity allows us to follow a conversaton while keeping in mind what we want to say. It enables us to relate to something we’re learning to other things we know. It allows us to recognize cause and effect which, as research has shown, is essential to understanding other people’s reactions to us (Diamond, 2010). For example other people’s reactions may not make sense if we don’t remember what we said or did that led to it.
Self-awareness involves the ability to observe and monitor our performance so that we can make appropriate adjustments. It is the basis for regulating emotional expression and behavior. Self-awareness involves holding in mind a sense of ourselves, allowing us to have appropriate expections of ourselves, and learn from what we have done before.
A common denominator and basis of all executive functioning is the ability to hold things in mind, step back and reflect. Without this capacity, it is difficult to have perspective, judgment, or control. Studies with children at different ages before and after executive development is in place demonstrate that without being able to inhibit impulses and distractions and hold multiple things in mind, even if we know what to do and want to do the right thing, that intention may not translate into behavior (Diamond, 2010; Zelazo, 2010). Therefore, admonishing or punishing children who are not following the rules because of limited executive function is not only ineffective, but leads children who are already often frustrated and discouraged to feel bad about themselves and unsupported. In order to intervene effectively with children, we must diagnose the problem accurately to determine when an issue is due to executive function deficit and not simply adolescent laziness or rebellion.
Part 2 tells the story of a boy with executive functioning deficits and his parents to highlight common experiences in families stressed by this problem and explain what’s happening in children’s minds. Finally, the column addresses how best to help support children with these issues and offers tips for parents.