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Children’s Executive Function Skills

By Pathways.org

Executive function is a mental process that allows us to understand our past experiences with present action. As you know, the brain uses this skill to guide behavior toward accomplishing a goal, prioritizing tasks, controlling impulses and focusing our attention. Doctors can explain to parents that children are born with the potential to gain these abilities through their experiences with caregivers, family members, teachers and other influential persons impacting their development.1

Executive functions are evaluated in children based on their behavior in non-routine situations that require them to use their own degree of judgment.2 Children may show differences in working memory, emotional control, and the ability to think flexibly and engage in self-monitoring.3

If a child has difficulty with executive functions he/she might:

  • Be disorganized. For example, may forget to hand in school assignments or prioritize tasks with calendars.
  • Struggle with time management.
  • Have difficulty with open-ended tasks, including assignments with little direction, or cannot switch from the planning phase of a project to its implementation.
  • Have difficulty starting tasks independently. For example, may not know the length of an appropriate break before beginning homework after school.
  • Be unable to complete tasks efficiently.
  • Struggle reviewing over school work without direction or guidance. 4
  • Have rigid routines and dislike change.
  • Become easily frustrated or intolerant of criticism
  • Forget rules easily. Display difficulty memorizing or retrieving items from memory.3  
  • Appear impulsive, have uncontrolled impulses,1 or an inability to mange emotions.4

When children do not demonstrate appropriate executive function skills, they may show signs of learning differences that require further evaluation. There are many reasons children display discrepancies in executive function abilities. Difficulty with executive functions could be a sign of Autism, OCD, traumatic brain injury, ADHD, or other illness/condition.

Doctors can discuss strategies with parents to help children with executive function difficulties stay on task such as:

  • This provides kids with manageable steps to complete tasks. Parents can create a list of things that must be completed before the child leaves the house in the morning or a list of steps that are related to completing an assignment in school. Checklists can guide children to independence gradually.
  • Set time limits. It may be helpful to assign certain tasks time limits to help children understand how long each task should take.
  • Explain the importance of a new process or technique. Children should understand why checklists and guidelines are important and related to their successful changes in behavior. They will feel more committed to meeting expectations.
  • Stick to Routines. A child should know what is expected of them when they return home from school, such as their break time before beginning homework and eating dinner.6
  • Help children build social connections with adults. Children need a reliable presence that they can trust and healthy relationships with adults will keep them engaged in creative play, and guide them toward gaining better executive function skills.5

Doctors can inquire about children’s executive function abilities during their yearly check-up. Because a child’s difficulty with executive functions may be an indication of other learning differences, it is important for doctors to refer the child for an evaluation as soon as possible.

For more information about issues related to childhood development, please visit www.pathways.org or email friends@pathways.org. Founded in 1985, Pathways.org empowers parents and health professionals with free educational resources on the benefit of early detection and early intervention for children’s motor, sensory, and communication development.

[1] Key Concepts: Executive Function. Center on the Developing Child Harvard University. www.developingchild.harvard.edu/. Accessed 19 Nov 2014.

[2] Banich M. Executive Function: The Search for an Integrated Account. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2009; 18(89); 89-94.

[3] Morin A. 9 Terms to Know If Your Child struggles With Executive Functioning Issues. National Center for Learning Disabilities. www.ncld.org. Accessed 6 Nov 2014.

[4] The Executive Function and School Performance: A 21st Century Challenge. National Center for Learning Disabilities. 2010. www.ncld.org. Accessed 6 Nov 2014.

[5] In Brief: Executive Function Skills for Life and Learning. Center on the Developing Child Harvard University. www.developingchild.harvard.edu/.   Accessed 19 Nov 2014.

[6] Ehmke R. Helping Kids Who Struggle with Executive Functions. Child Mind Institute. 2012. www.childmind.org. Accessed 2014 Nov 6.

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