Executive Functioning

What Is Executive Functioning and How to Identify the Weak Areas

thebbse@gmail.com May 19, 2023

Executive functioning problems show up in a lot of children labelled with a learning or behavioural problem. However, many of the symptoms that parents are told to medicate away are, in fact, executive functioning problems that may respond to a different kind of therapy.

 These are the kids who lose the homework they stuffed into overflowing backpacks. They approach their parents at 9:00 p.m. because they need supplies for a vital project due the next day. And when the tasks of daily life become unbearable, they melt down in a convulsion of emotion.

 Whether the diagnosis is ADD, dyslexia or a number of other labels, these kids share a common problem: they just can’t manage the seemingly simple daily tasks that come easily to the rest of us. As a Learning Differences therapist, I believe we can deconstruct these symptoms and pinpoint cognitive skills that can be strengthened using the latest Neuro-Cognitive research.

“Skills such as managing time, controlling emotions, and organising are all examples of executive functions.”

 What Is Executive Function

Broadly speaking, executive function skills involve self-control, working memory, and flexible thinking. If you think about the structure of a corporation, it’s easy to understand the term executive function.

 Just as the executive team of a corporation manages and coordinates the various departments around a common goal, your brain’s executive functions coordinate different cognitive abilities around your goals.

 Skills such as managing time, controlling emotions, and organising are all examples of executive functions. You require these skills to set and achieve goals, whether those goals are modest, like planning dinner, or ambitious, like being the top salesperson.

 Society creates structures for children that mimic adulthood in part to help them develop their executive function skills. School, sports, and other activities help children create and work toward goals. 

Many Children Experience Executive Function Problems

 Executive functioning skills reside in the frontal lobes. They aren’t fully developed until adulthood. Many children experience problems with their executive functioning, whether or not they have an underlying condition. 

Difficulty with one skill will manifest across areas. A child who has difficulty with time management will struggle to be on time and also be unable to estimate how long a task will take. 

Even if executive function difficulties seem pervasive, they are also manageable and respond well to interventions. Observing your child can help you determine if he has executive functioning difficulties. 

Identify Your Child’s Executive Function Weaknesses 

Your child’s struggles can come from a variety of sources. Much of the work I do focuses on going beyond the symptoms to get to the root of the problem. Understanding these root causes is the only way to implement therapies that will be helpful. 

Rule out learning disorders. It’s possible your child isn’t turning in homework because he doesn’t understand the subject and is embarrassed to ask for help. It isn’t uncommon for children gifted in the arts to have a learning disability when it comes to maths. Or your child who is a whizz with numbers may have cognitive difficulty with language. 

Emotional issues may result in missing homework. Perhaps a bully is targeting her. Maybe she’s too anxious to read her finished homework out loud. Maybe she’s convinced the teacher hates her and will give her a bad grade. Children’s emotional pain may not make sense to us, but it’s very real to them. 

On the other hand, there is an unmistakable pattern to executive function problems in children. If she’s losing her homework, then her bedroom, locker and backpack are probably a mess and may indicate problems with organising. If she just can’t resist playing video games or another fun activity until homework is finished, then she may have trouble with self-control. If that’s the case, then she probably wants to eat dessert before dinner too.

An underlying weak cognitive skill?

 Your child’s struggles may seem mysterious and frustrating to both you and your child. But chances are, there is an underlying cognitive skill that needs work. The latest research has given us effective therapies. Cogmed Working Memory Training and Safe & Sound Protocol are two that come to mind.

 You can look for executive functioning problems with your child when you observe his behaviours and talk to him about his difficulties. If you need some more guidance, you can download my self-assessment that highlights behaviours associated with executive functioning problems.

If you think we can help you, your child, please get in touch. We are always happy to take the time to listen to your needs or concerns. The best way to take the first step is to book a phone consultation so we can talk through your needs: Let’s have a chat.