Executive Function

Executive Functions in Everyday Life… And Why They Matter

October 13, 2021

What are each of the executive functions, and why are they so important?

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Is it a struggle to get your children ready for school every day? Do you feel like a broken record as you repeat the same instruction approximately 328 times each morning, only to eventually yell at your child just to get their attention, and then have them look at you in surprise that you are so annoyed? Does a change in the routine cause a lot of stress for your kids? Do you notice your child’s emotions going from “zero to sixty” after a change in plans or minor disagreement?

As we get closer to the end of another semester and the holiday season is in full swing, all of us are probably struggling with task persistence and managing our time. We are here to provide you with more information about executive function for your child with ADHD, autism, language disorder, or learning challenges to help make the days run a little bit smoother! 

A few weeks ago, we talked about five important facts every parent needs to understand about executive function. Today, I’m diving deeper into one of my favorite things to work on in therapy, and something I am passionate about helping parents understand: What are each of the executive functions, and why are they so important?

So, let’s break it down a little bit…

Quick review: There are several names for the executive functions, but I will refer specifically to nine different areas, described in the Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function, Second Edition (BRIEF2; Gioia, Isquith, Guy, & Kenworthy, 2015).  These executive functions all work together, but for clarity I will discuss them one by one. For each executive function, I will explain it in clinical terms, and then describe how a deficit in this area might impact children in their everyday lives.

Inhibition

Inhibition is a person’s ability to stop themselves from doing something they should not do, within a specific time or place. It is important for parents to recognize that expectations change depending on where we are and what is happening around us. Therefore, to truly demonstrate inhibition, a child would need to understand what is expected of them in that moment. 

How do I know if my child struggles with this? A child who struggles with inhibition will have difficulty thinking through the consequences of actions and may appear to be impulsive. For example, the child may blurt out, interrupt, or be excessively silly at unexpected times. Have you ever been at a birthday party and all of the other kids know when it is time to settle down and eat, but your child is the only one still running around or bouncing in the bounce house, refusing to transition? (I can personally relate to this one!)

This is because the expectation changed in the moment, and kids with poor inhibition don’t always notice and respond to those changes as quickly as other kids. In school, these are the behaviors (e.g., blurting, interrupting, standing up) that make teachers feel frustrated because they disrupt the entire classroom. If your child has low inhibition, keep in mind they are usually not acting out intentionally.

Self-Monitoring

Self-Monitoring describes a person’s awareness of how their actions can impact the thoughts and feelings of others. As you can imagine, this is an incredibly important social skill. Children who have poor self-monitoring often struggle socially because they aren’t able to understand what makes another person annoyed at them.

How do I know if my child struggles with this? It’s important to understand that all children have difficulty with this to some extent (and many adults, for that matter!). If you have ever been in public and your child pointed out another person’s physical appearance in the LOUDEST voice possible (“Mommy, why does that man have long hair?”), then you have experienced the poor self-monitoring that children often have. Again, this is a totally normal behavior for young children.

As children mature, they learn to take another person’s perspective and realize that they can’t always say or do what they are thinking. If your child persistently hurts another person’s feelings by saying exactly what is on their mind or doesn’t seem to notice or care how it impacts other people, this may be a sign they have poor self-monitoring. Children with poor self-monitoring also struggle to play cooperative games, because they try to change the rules and don’t recognize how frustrated the other kids in the group become as a result.

Shift/Cognitive Flexibility

Shift can also be described as cognitive flexibility, or the way a person can move from one situation to another as needed (e.g., changing the schedule or alternating between two tasks).

How do I know if my child struggles with this? Children who have difficulty with shifting are often poor problem solvers. This is because they can only think of one possible solution to a given scenario. They can also be resistant to change. Another area that is challenging for these children is going back and forth between two (or more) tasks. For example, a child might be expected to listen to the teacher while looking at the board and writing notes. This requires a TON of flexibility! We are asking that child to prioritize the important information, write it down, and still listen to and understand what is being said.

Emotional Control

Emotional Control is a child’s ability to regulate emotions to be appropriate for the time and place.

How do I know if my child struggles with this? Poor emotional control can mean that a child has frequent tantrums or over-reactions that do not match the size of the problem. Some children exhibit excellent emotional control within certain settings, such as during the school day. However, when they get home, they tend to have more meltdowns because they have been controlling their emotions all day. If your child is struggling with emotional control, our Relaxation Tools can be an amazing resource. Personally, I use birthday cake breathing with my 3- and 5-year-old almost every day and have been thrilled with the results.

Initiation

Initiation describes the ability to begin a task independently.

How do I know if my child struggles with this? Children with poor initiation often look unmotivated and can even be described as lazy. Many times they truly desire to be successful; they just have a hard time starting a task. These are the kids who will start a month-long project the night before it is due! Many times, they have been thinking about the project and feeling stressed about it. Because the whole process felt too overwhelming and they didn’t know where to start… they just never started.

Working Memory

Working Memory is the type of memory needed to hold small amounts of information in mind in order to complete a task. It is important for multi-step directions and sustained attention.

How do I know if my child struggles with this? Children with poor working memory will often remember the first of three items on a list, forgetting the other two. At home, you might send your child to their room get their shoes, and then find them reading a book (not dressed) a few minutes later. In the school setting, children with low working memory often forget what they are working on or confuse complex instructions. Things need to be broken down into small chunks of information. They will benefit from reminders and alarms to keep them on task.

Planning

Planning is the skill of thinking ahead, to manage future demands. This is important for setting a goal and strategizing about the steps that are needed to accomplish that goal. This executive function also includes understanding how long a task will take and managing time appropriately.

How do I know if my child struggles with this? Children who struggle with planning often have difficulty managing their time. They may start a project at the last minute because they didn’t realize all of the required steps. Many children with ADHD have wonderful, creative ways of looking at the world. They will have amazing ideas, but they have a hard time planning out the steps needed to make their idea into a reality. Both children and adults with planning difficulties often have trouble arriving on time.

Why? Because they try to fit too much into a small amount of time. If your husband has ever looked at the clock, seen that the entire family needs to be in the car in five minutes, and said, “Do you think I have time for a quick shower?” … this is a planning issue! Despite the best intentions, children who struggle with planning are chronically late and underprepared.

Task-Monitoring

Task-Monitoring describes a person’s ability to check work as they go, making sure that they are still on track and completing tasks with accuracy.

How do I know if my child struggles with this? The child with poor task-monitoring will often rush through work and make careless mistakes. So frustrating, because they have the knowledge to complete the task. At school, this can mean forgetting to write a name or date on the paper. Children who struggle with task-monitoring will have significant trouble with the revision process of writing, such as editing their work. Our online parenting course, Creating Calm, provides some wonderful strategies for helping children stay on task while doing homework.

Organization

Organization reflects a person’s ability to keep track of their own belongings and materials.

 How do I know if my child struggles with this? Poor organization skills cause problems at school and home, as the child will not have the items they need in order to complete a task. For example, they are given a book-based assignment but cannot find the book. Or the class is asked to turn in a homework folder each day and they forget to turn in the folder, even though they did the work. At home, organizational problems will result in messy play and work spaces, as well as many lost items.

A few important things to keep in mind… 

  • Executive functions are all developing at different rates, from early infancy through adulthood. In the next blog post on this topic, we will be talking about the timeline for how these executive functions develop, and what you can reasonably expect from your children at different ages.
  • We all have strengths and weaknesses in these areas! Yes, you want to understand which areas your child struggles with. And it is also SO important to identify and celebrate the things they do well! Maybe your child’s room is a complete disaster and they leave their water bottle behind at least 50% of the time (anyone else want to buy stock in Hydroflasks?!). But perhaps that same child is extremely compassionate to their younger siblings when they are sad! Or they support their friend who is being bullied at recess. It is easy to focus on the negative areas. Finding those strengths can help build your child’s confidence and keep you from losing hope.
  • And speaking of hope, keep this important fact in mind… The executive functions can improve with time and intervention! For more information about this, check out our online course, Creating Calm. This course is all about parenting ADHD and you can watch it from anywhere!

What questions do you have about executive function? Please let us know what other information would be helpful in understanding your child (or yourself!) better.

If you want free resources and information about how to support your child, follow us on social media. Or, if your child has been diagnosed with ADHD, you don’t want to miss our FREE ADHD Parenting Guide, where we break down ALL the science behind our top six tools for parenting ADHD.

We also have an in-depth online course, Creating Calm. This science-backed course breaks down our best tools to help you raise a happy, independent child with ADHD.

For Part 1 of our Executive Function series, click here.

For Part 3 of our Executive Function series, click here.

Have a beautiful day, 

Katie

The contents of this site are opinions of The Childhood Collective PLLC partners unless otherwise noted. The information on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prevent any type of medical condition and is not intended as personalized medical/psychological advice. Any decision you make regarding your and your family’s health and medical treatments should be made with a qualified healthcare provider.  

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  1. […] the past few months, we have been sharing about executive function: what they are, why they are so important, and how we as parents can support children with ADHD with these […]

  2. […] Avoid Punishment. Punishment will not teach a new skill or meet an underlying need, such as self-regulation or focus. […]

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