Executive Function Skills: An Overview

By Jenna Prada, M.Ed

Many of the qEEGs we process show that brains process information in a way that impacts executive functioning (EF) skills. Our director of learning brings with her new expertise related to understanding how EF skills manifest day to day for all of us and what that means specifically in educational settings. We are happy to share this first blog in a series about EF skills with both our clients and with the schools we work with.

According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, “executive functioning skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.” 

In life and in school executive functioning (EF) skills allow us to set goals, establish plans to reach those goals and then carry out those plans. While many students with ADHD or other learning disabilities struggle in this area, so do many students (and adults) who do not have a formal diagnosis.

EF & Brain Development

The brain’s prefrontal cortex coordinates the parts of the brain that regulate motivation, emotion, arousal, perception, and action. Together these areas of the brain make up the prefrontal system. A deficit in any of the areas of the brain that make up the prefrontal system can impact EF.

The prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to develop. The brain experiences two growth spurts—one from ages 0-3 and another around age 11 or 12. Research suggests that this second growth spurt occurs largely in the prefrontal cortex and correlates with the beginning of the ability to develop complex EF skills. (For kids with ADHD this spurt is often delayed by approximately two years.) The prefrontal cortex continues to grow into early adulthood. Therefore this area of the brain is still in the growth and development phase for school-age children, which is why your child may be smart or motivated, but have trouble with follow through or planning.

Executive Functioning Subskills

We often talk about executive functioning as if it is a single idea. In fact, it is more accurate to think of EF as an umbrella term that encompass all of the following areas:

  • Planning and Prioritization: The ability to see the big picture and to develop a set of steps to accomplish goals.
  • Organization: Create and maintain systems for keeping track of things and information.
  • Time Management: Estimate how much time is available, how to track it, and how to stay within timed limits. 
  • Memory: Hold multiple pieces of information in the brain while performing tasks.  
  • Self Reflection: Reflect on successes and failures and take note of oneself in a given situation. 
  • Paying Attention: Attend to a task in spite of boredom, distractions, or fatigue.
  • Staying on Track: Push through to the completion of a goal and not be put off by difficulties or competing interests. 
  • Self Control: Manage emotions & impulses in order to achieve goals, complete tasks and direct behavior. 
  • Getting Started: Begin a task without excessive procrastination.  
  • Cognitive Flexibility &  Problem Solving: Adjust an approach in response to new information, setbacks, obstacles or mistakes. 

While it’s easy to see how EF sub skills are often collapsed under the umbrella label of “organization,” it’s best to view them individually. Because not all kids have the same EF deficits, understanding a child’s particular needs enables you to help develop the specific habits that will lead to success in all areas of life.

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