Executive Functioning

Executive function is a term used to describe the many tasks our brains perform that are necessary to think, act, and solve problems. Executive functioning includes tasks that help us learn new information, remember and retrieve information we’ve learned in the past, and use this information to solve problems of everyday life.  Specifically executive functioning refers to the role of the brain’s frontal lobes in:

  • organizing,
  • developing initiatives,
  • controlling impulses,
  • making appropriate decisions,
  • learning from mistakes,
  • monitoring and changing behavior as needed,
  • planning future behavior when faced with novel tasks and situations,
  • initiating and stopping actions,
  • assessing risks,
  • and adapting to changing situations.

The term “executive function” comes from the business world where the top executive organizes, decides, adjusts, and supervises the activities of the business. As the name implies, executive functions are high-level abilities that influence more basic abilities like attention, memory, and motor skills.  Executive functions allow people to figure out the task demanded through trial and error, and change strategies as needed. The abilities to form concepts and think abstractly are considered components of executive function.

Executive function deficits are associated with a number of psychiatric and developmental disorders, including but not limited to obsessive-compulsive disorder, Tourette’s syndrome, depression, conduct disorder, anxiety, oppositional defiant disorder, schizophrenia, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism, Asperger’s syndrome, fetal alcohol syndrome and pre-natal drug exposure. Chronic heavy substance users show impairments on tests of executive function.  Some of these deficits appear to result from heavy substance use, but there is also evidence suggesting that problems with executive functions may contribute to the development of substance use disorders.

Executive functioning deficits affect a person’s ability to plan, organize and manage time and space. People with executive functioning deficits may also show weakness with working memory.  Parents of children and teens with executive function deficits may notice their child having difficulty:

  • making plans,
  • keeping track of time,
  • keeping track of more than one thing at a time,
  • engaging in group dynamics,
  • evaluating ideas,
  • reflecting on work,
  • organizing work
  • planning and finishing work on time,
  • asking for help when needed,
  • making mid-course corrections while thinking, reading and writing,
  • figuring out the amount of time needed to complete a project,
  • finishing work on time,
  • waiting to speak until called on,
  • seeking information when needed,
  • communicating details in an organized, sequential manner, with important details and minimal irrelevant details,
  • initiating activities or tasks, or generating ideas independently,
  • retaining information while doing something with it.

The primary key to successful interventions for executive function difficulties in children and teens is to properly describe the problem. Do not attribute the difficulties to laziness, lack of motivation, or irresponsibility.  Do not assume that change occurs because a child/teen wants to.  A child/teen has to learn the necessary skills that will enable him/her to make change.  It also important that the youth understand that change is possible. If you are concerned that your child/teen might have executive functioning difficulties consult with your pediatrician, school psychologist or other mental health professional to find out how to best help your child/teen.

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