As children, we begin to develop executive functioning skills, which is to say that we begin to make conscious choices and actions to meet goals as we conduct our lives. Over time, these skills continually develop well into adulthood, and we live our whole lives grappling with decisions and action; the strengths and weaknesses of our executive function can aid or hinder us as we aspire to reach our goals. Those who have strong executive functions may formulate a plan and see it through to the end without much of a hiccup, while others may struggle to follow a plan, let alone make one. Here at Whole Child Neuro, we strive to help children and young adults to strengthen their executive functions at an early age, in order to improve their pursuits in academia and beyond. These skills prove to be lifelong skills, aiding individuals in continual, proactive growth.

Now, you may be asking yourself: What exactly are executive functions? And how can I support these skills in my child? Let’s address those questions to better understand this broad concept and its application in childhood development.

What Are Executive Functions?

As mentioned, the term “executive functions” covers a broad range of skills, and the definition certainly isn’t black and white. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) outlines the definition of executive functions as such: “Executive functions (EFs) make possible mentally playing with ideas; taking the time to think before acting; meeting novel, unanticipated challenges; resisting temptations; and staying focused. Core EFs are inhibition [response inhibition (self-control—resisting temptations and resisting acting impulsively) and interference control (selective attention and cognitive inhibition)], working memory, and cognitive flexibility (including creatively thinking “outside the box,” seeing anything from different perspectives, and quickly and flexibly adapting to changed circumstances).” — quite a mouthful.

In short, we can understand executive functions to be the mental skills that help us to meet goals.

To better define executive functions, we can take a look at executive function deficits (EFD), where an individual may have one or more limited executive functions. Those with EFD may struggle to consciously self-regulate in order to achieve a goal for a number of reasons.

For example, those who have EFD may struggle to remain aware of a goal. They may not be able to restrain or inhibit themselves when a distraction is present. They may struggle with verbal and non-verbal memory. They may lack emotional control. They may lack the motivation to complete tasks. Or they may struggle to plan and solve problems.

All of these EFD-related impairments may derail an individual as they strive to accomplish a task or goal, and that may make long-term goals especially difficult.

How Can I Help My Child to Develop Their Skills?

Executive functions are complex and developing these skills can involve a wide variety of strategies. Each child will develop at his or her own rate while responding to strategies that work best for their personal growth and learning profile. If your child struggles to reach the goals in his or her life, has difficulty with organization, or trouble with time-management, then it may be beneficial to evaluate whether they have executive function deficits, which may be a stand alone issue or co-occur with attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder (ADD or ADHD), learning disorders or processing issues. A pediatric neuropsychologist is able to pinpoint a child’s learning profile, their specific pattern of strengths and weaknesses and any executive issues or other challenges that may be getting in their way. From there, strategies can be put in place to help your child strengthen their executive functions or to develop techniques to work around shortcomings in executive functions. This can be supported by an educational specialist or executive coach, who is trained in teaching executive strategies for the school and home setting. For example, your child may struggle to remember the tasks necessary to reach a goal. In this instance, you can help your child create a list of the tasks needed to accomplish the goal, and you can work through the list together, checking off task after task. A checklist could be as simple as tasks to get ready for school — jot down individual tasks to complete (e.g. make your bed, brush your teeth, eat breakfast, place the dishes in the sink, etc.), and check them off throughout the morning. After some time, these small tasks can become routine, and your child may better remember to complete each task, even without a list.

Improve Development With Whole Child Neuro

If you’re curious about executive functions, building executive function skills, executive function deficits, or attention deficit disorder, we’d be happy to meet with you for a consultation. You and your child will meet with Dr. Laura McDonald, the Founder of Whole Child Neurodevelopment Group, to begin a dialogue about childhood development. Contact us today to schedule a consultation with your local pediatric neuropsychologist here at Whole Child Neuro — our office is conveniently located in Encino.