Understanding Executive Function

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Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’ve heard the term Executive Function used a lot. There’s a good reason for that; Executive Functioning skills are the basis for everything we do, as well as being absolutely essential to succeeding in school and beyond. While most of us know broadly what the term refers to, it’s never a bad idea to take a moment and examine Executive Function to gain a deeper understanding of everything it entails.

On the most basic level, Executive Function refers to the brain’s ability to execute​ and complete tasks. In order to get even the simplest things done, our brains have to perform a number of different functions effectively. While adults generally take these processes for granted, it actually takes a long time for these skills to develop in students. What may seem like a lack of application or care to parents or even teachers can actually be very challenging to students because their brains are not yet capable of processing things in the manner that is expected of them.

To actually understand what this means, let’s take a look at some of the specific effects of Executive Functioning skills. While this may not be a comprehensive explanation of every aspect, looking at which skills are related to Executive Function can help us understand it in more meaningful terms and not just as an abstract concept.

Here are some practical examples of skills that are based in Executive Function, grouped loosely for the sake of simplicity:

Organization – ​Both spatial and abstract, meaning the ability to create systems for both keeping track things of or accomplishing tasks. This shows up in areas such as Planning, which refers to developing realistic ideas about what steps need to be taken in order to accomplish a task. Time Management, or the ability to manage a schedule or have a realistic idea of how long things take plays a major part in this; closely related is Prioritization, which is recognizing which tasks are more or less relevant or important.

Initiative – The ability to start on a task without being prompted by a parent or teacher. Persistence falls into this category with regard to ensuring that tasks are completed before abandoning them or moving on to others. Likewise, Transitional Skills are the ability to effectively shift from one activity to another.

Focus Developing and maintaining concentration on the task at hand. Working Memory is part of this, manifested as keeping track of important details during a process using visual imagery or self-talk, as is Attention to Detail, recognizing at remembering relevant details.

Inhibition In either thoughts or actions, this refers to the ability to pause and consider whether or not a particular action is appropriate. The Reflection aspect of this refers to ​self-awareness, mindfulness, and introspection; this also refers to the ability to step back and consider the causes and effects of their actions. This is the most important aspect of Emotional Regulation, which is the ability to recognize and evaluate feelings and their causes.

For people with well-developed Executive Functioning skills, all of these (and other) factors work together seamlessly, allowing us to perform tasks throughout the day. Students, however, especially those who struggle with Executive development, may struggle with seemingly basic things such as remembering whether or not they have homework and taking the time to actually make sure it gets done.

Because of how effortless many of these things are for adults, it can difficult to attribute issues students have to a lack of Executive development. Sometimes, teachers or parents with good intentions make students feel like they’re lazy or stupid, which can be discouraging to a child who may be honestly trying. Phrases such as “You need to try harder” or “You’re just not living up to your potential” are not meant to be harmful, but often, they reinforce negativity more than they help.

Obviously, encouraging students to try their best is still essential, but the way in which that encouragement is given makes a big difference. Understanding Executive Function and how it develops is important an important part of helping students grow in a healthy way. Gaining a sensitivity towards how children’s’ minds develop as well as the unique struggles that affect each student is the first step towards making sure they continue to learn in a way that ensures their continued success, both in school and beyond.

Evan Weinberger

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