Executive Functioning: What Is It and Why Is Everyone Suddenly Talking About It?Wednesday May 15, 2019
While research on executive functioning has been taking place since the early 1970s, it has recently become a common buzzword in the worlds of education and speech-language pathology. This may be due to new research showing that a child’s future success depends less on their ability to memorize math facts and decode words, and more on having strong executive functioning and social-emotional skills (see Unbabbled podcast episode 4 for info on social-emotional skills). Children’s executive functioning skills gradually develop throughout childhood, beginning as early as infancy and continuing through the teen years.
So, what is executive functioning?
This is a simple question with a complex answer. There are 33 varying definitions of executive functioning used in the research and educational fields. However, there is an overall agreement that executive functioning refers to “an all-encompassing construct or an umbrella term for the complex cognitive process that underline flexible, goal-directed behavior.”
In simpler terms, it’s often described as the “air traffic controller” of our brains—planning; organizing; regulating behavior; attending to important information; remembering past, present and upcoming tasks; etc.
There are three generally agreed upon cognitive processes that make up executive functioning (with many skills that fall within these areas):
- Inhibitory Control: Also known as self-regulation, this includes your ability to restrain your own thoughts/actions, to initiate tasks, regulate your emotions, and ignore distractions to focus on important information.
- Cognitive Flexibility: Your ability to think about something in different ways. This includes your ability to see a variety of perspectives, solve problems, plan and organize, shift attention and engage in future thinking (what things will look like in the future that may be different from right now).
- Working Memory: Your ability to hold information in your memory and be able to use it. This is necessary for following directions, sequencing, listening comprehension and holding numbers in your head to complete math problems.
Other skills that fall under the executive functioning umbrella include self-monitoring, goal setting and reasoning.
Why are executive functioning skills so important for learning?
Executive functioning skills are necessary for a child to:
- Learn within a group setting
- Block out distractions and pay attention to important information and tasks
- Regulate energy levels and emotions
- Plan, organize and complete assignments
- Self-monitor their work, problem solve and make changes when needed
- Initiate work and maintain attention through completion
- Interact with Peers
- Take perspective of others
- Think flexibly to engage in conversations
- Initiate and maintain play and conversations with peers
- Self-regulate energy level and emotions
- Develop Reading Comprehension
- Remember words and sentence meanings when decoding words
- Remember important information from a passage or story
- Sequence events in stories
- Hold sound-letter associations in mind while sounding out new words
A child with impaired executive functioning may have difficulty:
- Controlling impulses to “follow the rules”
- Attending to tasks
- Initiating, planning and completing assignments
- Following directions
- Remembering key information to answer questions (math, reading, science, etc.)
- Telling stories
- Staying organized
- Engaging in group discussions or staying on topic during conversations
- Completing homework and/or turning in completed work
Who may struggle with executive function difficulties?
Children with the following diagnoses may struggle with executive functioning:
- Attention-deficit disorder (ADD)
- Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Autism spectrum disorder
- Sensory processing disorder
- Learning differences
- Language disorders
References and Resources:
- Executive Functioning Fact Sheet, National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) 2008.
- Executive Functions, Adele Diamond (2013) Annual Review of Psychology., Vol 64.
- Handbook of Executive Functioning, Goldstein & Naglieri editors (2012), Springer Publishing.
- Executive Function in Education, Second Edition: From Theory to Practice, Lynn Meltzer (2018). The Guilford Press.
- Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University (www.developingchild.harvard.edu).