What is Executive Functioning?
Executive functioning describes an array of cognitive skills including working memory, attention, mental flexibility, planning, organization, and impulse control. Children and adults use executive functioning in their everyday lives when learning, engaging in social interactions, making decisions, planning and completing tasks, and setting goals.1
Executive function improves as children age and mature. Between infancy and pre-school years impulse control and working memory begin to develop. Approaching puberty, children begin to display goal directed behavior, selective attention, and self-control. Between ages 8-10 a child’s mental flexibility begins to match that of an adult’s. Moving into adolescence the teenage brain becomes more effective and efficient, allowing teens to show more consistency in executive functioning skills. Our executive functioning skills peak between ages 20-29 and decline in older age.1, 2, 3, 4
What are symptoms?
Children and adolescents with executive functioning difficulty struggle with working memory, impulse control, and cognitive flexibility, which interfere with their daily lives. Issues with executive functioning can look different at different ages, below are some examples. 5, 6
- Trouble remembering rules of a game or steps in a process
- Has trouble estimating the time needed to complete a task, struggles with time management
- Has difficulty with organization and loosing personal possessions
- Difficulty memorizing and retaining facts and information
- Has trouble evaluating or monitoring their progress or performance
- Has difficulty sustaining attention
- Speaks or acts without regard for consequences
- Has difficulty waiting for things, or taking turns
- Has trouble regulating emotion and frustration
- Has difficulty changing tasks
- Has trouble shifting problem-solving strategies even if the current strategy is not working well
- Difficulty applying different rules in different settings, or changes in routine
What causes trouble with Executive Functioning?
The causes of executive functioning deficits are still under study, but research has provided possible links that include genetic inheritance and differences in brain functioning of the prefrontal cortex (the front of the brain where many of the processes involved in executive functioning take place). Often times a child experiencing difficulty with executive functioning will also have a diagnosis of ADHD, learning disability, autism spectrum disorder, mood disorder, fetal alcohol syndrome, or brain injury. According to the Journal of Attention Disorders, estimates are that 30% of school-age children with ADHD have executive functioning issues.6 Life experiences and physical changes and development of the brain are thought to shape a person’s executive functioning abilities over their lifetime. 3
What can be done to improve Executive Functioning skills?
Because the brain continues to develop into young adulthood, intervention is helpful at any age. Psychologists can provide cognitive behavioral therapy to help children self-monitor thoughts and behavior. Therapy can also help provide social skills training to learn appropriate responses in social situations.6 An integrated approach between psychologist, teachers, and parents can help children improve these skills in the classroom and at home.
Did you know?
While the definitive reason is unclear, research has shown that bilingual infants, children, and elderly excel in executive functioning tasks, especially impulse control and task switching.7
1 American Psychological Association Division of School Psychology: Neuropsychological features of executive functions in children with autism spectrum disorder
2 Garver; Urban; Lazar; Sweeney (2004). “Maturation of cognitive processes from late childhood to adulthood”. Child Development 75 (5): 1357–1372.
3 Wood; Anderson; Buchanan; Proffitt; Mahony; Pantelis (2003). “Normative data from the CANTAB I: Development of executive function over the lifespan”. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology 25 (2): 242–254.
4 De Luca, Cinzia R; Leventer, Richard J; (2008). “Developmental trajectories of executive functions across the lifespan”.
5 Penn State Extension: Building Brain Power, Executive function and young children. April 3,2014.
6 Understood.org Understanding Executive Functioning Issues
7 Carlson SM, Meltzoff AM; Meltzoff (2008). “Bilingual experience and executive functioning in young children”. Developmental Science 11 (2): 282–298.