There have been many studies conducted on the executive functions of the brain in recent years. Depending on the resource you find, you may see different areas or skills associated with executive functions. You may also see the skills described or named something different from the list below. Let’s take some time to explore some of these associated skills in more detail.
Working memory: Working memory is the ability to retain information for a period of time in order to use it in the future. For example, a child needs to have working memory to follow multiple-step directions. They must be able to remember all of the steps and the order in which the steps were given, to accomplish the task. Children also use working memory to answer questions about stories they hear or passages that they read when taking tests.
You may notice that young children are not very good at following multiple step directions. This is because the area of the brain responsible for executive functions, such as working memory is the last to fully develop, which occurs in early adulthood.
Cognitive flexibility: This is described as the ability to think about solutions to problems from multiple angles. People who are good at brainstorming have strong cognitive flexibility as opposed to people who stick to one and only one way of doing things. Cognitive flexibility helps us deal with unexpected changes. It also includes the ability to take on another person’s point of view.
Attention control: This refers to a person’s ability to maintain an appropriate level of focus regardless of the external stimuli in the environment. In some cases, a child may have difficulty sustaining their attention for long periods of time, especially on non-preferred activities. That same child may be able to focus intensely on a preferred activity, almost to the exclusion of other stimuli in the environment.
Inhibition: This is the ability to refrain from acting out when feeling strong emotions. It can also be described as the ability to control impulses and think before acting. When children are young they are very impulsive, which is the opposite of inhibition. They see a toy they want and they grab it. As children mature and develop inhibition, they are less likely to grab toys from others and better able to use language to request the toy or come up with a plan to play with the toy together.
Self-regulation: This is the ability to manage strong emotions in appropriate ways. It includes things like having the tools to calm down when upset and to express a socially acceptable amount of excitement in public settings.
Organization: Placing items in a way that is logical and conducive to accomplishing tasks. It includes the ability to visualize where items should be placed in an efficient way and the ability to recall where items have been placed in the past. Think of a child’s backpack or binder for school. A child with strong organization skills will have all of the math materials dated and placed in order behind the math tab and all of the science materials in the same manner. A child who struggles with organization will misplace work often because things are not in the correct spot.
Planning: Planning requires the ability to imagine the tasks that are required and the order in which they must be done. The ability to determine which tasks are most important and prioritize those tasks first. It also includes knowing which items are required to complete tasks and the ability to acquire those objects. Planning can include time management as well.
Initiative: This is the ability to start and continue the required steps to complete a task independently. It can be related to motivation, which can be intrinsic or extrinsic.
Self-monitoring: This is the awareness of and ability to assess one’s mental functioning. It is the ability to recognize that you are off task and bring focus back to the task at hand. It is a reflective skill that allows children to see how well they are performing and to make adjustments.
Remember, these skills are developing in young children and do not fully mature until we reach adulthood. Be sure to use this knowledge to adjust your expectations of the children in your care. Be sure to approach these skills with the same intention that you do other skills in your curriculum. Build their confidence while you build their skills!
For the main article Executive Functions, CLICK HERE
How are Executive Functions and Executive Assistants Alike?, CLICK HERE
For the article Promoting the Development of Executive Functions, CLICK HERE
For the article Executive Functions and Adults, CLICK HERE