You may have heard the phrase “executive function”. What does this mean?
Executive function is a set of mental skills that allow us to manage and control our behaviour, emotions, and thinking. It is the management system of the brain.
These skills include:
- planning and prioritizing
- time management
- initiation (getting started on tasks)
- flexible thinking
- emotion regulation
- self-awareness and self-monitoring
- attention and focus
- working memory (keeping information in mind while working with it)
We use these skills every day for almost everything. We need these skills to set and achieve goals, make decisions, solve problems, get things done, manage daily life, and cope with emotions.
These skills help us succeed in school, work, the household, and relationships. Some research suggests that executive function may be a better predictor of success than intelligence.
We are not born with these skills, but develop them through experience and practice. High stress can interfere with their development. These skills develop throughout childhood, adolescence, and into our mid-20s.
Some children need more support than others to learn these skills. Executive function skills can be improved. However, these skills do not transfer easily from one situation to another.
How can you help your child build and improve executive function skills?
- Provide a calm, safe, and predictable environment.
- Encourage play activities and games that promote imagination, role-playing, following rules, and controlling impulses.
- Directly teach your child executive function skills. Don’t assume they’ll just figure it out.
- Teach these skills in real-life situations. Provide lots of practice.
- Involve your child in planning, organizing, problem-solving, and decision-making activities, such as planning a party.
- Explain the rationale for doing a task or using a strategy.
- Rather than telling your child what to do, ask questions to help them figure it out on their own like, “How could you solve this problem?” or “What would happen if you do that?”
- Help your child set realistic goals and steps to achieve those goals.
- Teach your child how to break down tasks into small steps and develop a plan.
- Create routines in your household and help your child develop their own routines.
- Teach your child how to adjust the environment to meet their needs, such as removing distractions during homework.
- Model using these skills in your own life. Explain what you are doing and why. For example, “I don’t want to forget my appointment, so I’m writing it on the calendar”.