Executive Functioning Difficulties
What is executive functioning?
Executive functioning is a process of higher brain functioning that is involved in goal directed activities. It is similar to an executive of a company who plans out how the resources of the company will be used, decides what the priorities are, decides what direction things will take in the long term and decides what to do when there is conflicting information. This is a process of understanding the concept that all actions cause a response or have a consequence. For most people executive functioning occurs without conscious thought and developes as we mature. For some, however, they require explicit guiding to help develop appropriate strategies to overcome their difficulty. These difficulties may include:
- Paying attention
- Organizing, planning, and prioritizing
- Starting tasks and staying focused on them until they are completed
- Understanding otherspoints of view that are different to their own
- Regulating emotions
- Self-monitoring (keeping track of what you’re doing)
Why is executive functioning important?
These skills are crucial for learning and social development, they enable us to demonstrate positive behaviour and allow us to make healthy choices. Executive function and self-regulation skills depend on three types of brain function: working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control.
- Working memory is our ability to retain and manipulate distinct pieces of information over short periods of time.
- Mental flexibility helps us to sustain or shift attention in response to different demands, and understand/apply different rules in different settings.
- Self-control enables us to set priorities and resist impulsive actions or responses.
These functions are highly interrelated, and the successful application of executive function skills requires them to operate in coordination with each other.
You can tell there are problems with executive functioning if the child:
- The child has difficulties with setting his/her own goals
- They show awareness of the process involved in how things happen
- The child struggles to start a task
- The child constantly “Lives in the moment” and does not think about consequences.
- The child has difficulty thinking about past experience and learning from it, often resulting in discipline measures producing little change.
- Uses the same strategy to solve a problem, even when it has been proven ineffective.
- The child changes from impulsive to rigid rapidly – this can often lead to increased anxiety.
- The child has difficulty adapting to change.
- The child struggles to match a strategy to a problem.
- The child may have developed low self and be unrealistic about their abilities.
- The child can appear stubborn and disruptive as they have difficulty controlling their emotions.
- The child may have a low tolerance for failure.
- The child may miss steps in a procedure and is then confused when the desired outcome is unsucessful
- Has difficulty shifting perspectives and understanding others
- Needs help to understand other peoples feelings
- Fails to see the big picture.
When you see difficulties with executive functioning, you might also see difficulties with:
- The child may struggle with appropriate behaviour due to frustration, lack of understanding or confusion.
- The child may struggle to effectively self regulate, this is the ability to obtain, maintain and changeone’s emotion, behaviour, attention and activity level appropriate for a task or situation in a socially acceptable manner.
- The child may struggle with their social skills as these are determined by the ability to engage in reciprocal interaction with others (either verbally or non-verbally), to compromise with others, and be able to recognize and follow social norms
- Academic performance fmay be difficult as they find it difficult to stay focuissed on a specific task fopr the duration of the activity.
- The child may not be able to sustained the level of effort required to do activities without distraction and being able to hold that effort long enough to get the task done.
What can be done to improve executive functioning?
- When a child learns new skills, provide the reasoning behind them, or things like planning might feel like a waste of time.
- Support the child by highlighting the steps involved ahead of time to make a task less daunting and more achievable.
- Use tools like time organisers, computers, or watches with alarms.
- Make use of visual schedules and review them several times a day.
- Provide the child with written instructions as well as oral instructions.
- Create checklists and “to do” lists, estimating how long tasks will take. Use checklists for getting through assignments. For example, a student’s checklist could include items such as: get out pencil and paper; put name on paper; put due date on paper; read directions.
- Use calendars to keep track chores, and activities.
- Help the child to organise their work space and minimise clutter.
- Establish routines to try to consolidate skills and memory of what needs to be done.
Activities that can help improve executive functioning include:
- Cut and paste projects requiring multiple steps in that they must complete it in a sequential manner.
- Mind mapping to assist the child to get ideas down on paper.
- Games: Planning and problem solving games such as puzzles or games like ‘Go Getter’ (River & Road game – from Windmill or Imagine If).
- Lotus diagrams: Use lotus diagrams with the child to help with structuring thoughts whilst creating clear expectations as to how much to write.
- Block building: Get the child to copy block designs that you have made or from a picture.
- Drawing: Draw an incomplete picture and ask the child to finish the picture.
- Practice goal setting with the child (e.g. Help the child to set attainable goals that are well-defined). Break goals down into smaller steps and talk about alternative approaches with the child.
- Recall games that require the child to recall information such as Memory, “I went to the shops and bought a…”
- Multi-tasking: Practice doing a number of activities at once (it may be helpful to number the activities) to encourage the child to learn to shift from one activity to another.