Executive Functions have been defined as the sorts of skills that are necessary to be, for example, a successful executive or a CEO of an organization. In order to be successful, these individuals would need to have good skills in such areas as organization, planning, flexibility. They also must have the ability to initiate tasks and ideas, to monitor their own performance ("How am I doing?"; "Am I on the right track?"), and to be able to shift gears and change directions when they realize that they may be on the wrong track. Broadly speaking, they need the skills necessary to "make things happen". This is a skill that requires higher level thinking ability and it is a skill that develops gradually from early childhood to the early adult years. By the time students are in middle school and certainly by high school, the executive function skills are on their way to being well-developed. Because of this developing skill, students are increasingly able to handle such advanced school requirements as planning for and completing long range assignments, being able to develop timelines and deciding how to divide the amount of work they have with available time.
Executive functions also play an increasingly larger role outside of school. For example, students must begin to understand the relationship between school tasks and how this fits into the larger framework of multiple responsibilities, such as family responsibilities, extracurricular activities, peer relationships, and fulfilling basic needs such as eating and sleeping. Many students are able to learn how to do this without too much direct instruction and seem to develop this ability implicitly by modeling by their parents, older siblings, extended family members, teachers, coaches, etc. Some students, in spite of good role models, need more explicit guidance in order to successfully negotiate their varying responsibilities and with a bit more guidance are able to manage adequately. At the other end of the spectrum, however, are students who experience significant and even extreme difficulty managing tasks of this sort.
Executive function deficits have a high correlation to those diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Dr. Russell Barkley, a prominent research psychologist and expert on ADHD discusses executive functions as a set of self-directed actions that help the student achieve some future goal. Students with ADHD experience significant problems with these tasks and have problems completing even simple tasks and reaching daily goals. Often, students diagnosed with ADHD cannot manage to bring home material from school needed to complete nightly assignments or they may even forget to write their assignments down. Lack of organization leads to trouble remembering what materials are needed for which assignment. Problems in planning lead to an inability to logically follow a procedure even though there have been frequent reminders by parents and teachers. The overarching problems in self-monitoring and self-regulation are often the culprits.
Help is available! Even if your child has not been diagnosed with ADHD, he or she may exhibit some of the characteristics associated with weak executive functions. Stay tuned for Executive Functions – Part 2, where I will talk about some ways to help kids with problems in executive functions.