What is executive functioning?
Executive functioning is the neurological and physical process by which individuals create and complete small goals to accomplish an overall task. Executive functioning is the way our brains tell our bodies to complete a task, from start to finish. If you really want the breakdown, check out this handy dandy list from ADDitude:
- Analyze a task
- Plan how to address the task
- Organize the steps needed to carry out the task
- Develop timelines for completing the task
- Adjust or shift the steps, if needed, to complete the task
- Complete the task in a timely way
Most children struggle with executive functioning, often through their preschool years. You may have noticed that sometimes it can be tough to tell a kiddo between the ages of 2-8 years old to help with chores. Executive functioning skills develop over time, just as a child’s brain and body does. However, for many individuals with learning difficulties and ADHD, executive functioning skills can be a difficulty.
What does executive functioning disorder mean?
Executive functioning disorder can mean something different for everyone that has it. Since everyone is different, different people may struggle with various aspects of executive functioning in a multitude of ways.
For those with executive functioning disorder, completing daily tasks can be likened to that of taking a road trip without a map. You’ll get somewhere, but probably not where you had wanted to go. These difficulties can manifest as a number of things, specifically the following few bullet points:
- Difficulty initiating and finishing tasks
- Difficulty switching from task to task
- Difficulty problem solving
- Problems regulating emotions
- Issues following directions
- Struggles keeping track of time
- Struggle with math and reading skills
- Difficulty scheduling
- Difficulty remaining organized
- Impulsivity without realizing consequences
- Difficulty planning ahead
- Not always able to theorize potential outcomes
- Difficulty in memory and attention
Let it be said that a lot of the hallmark characteristics of executive functioning disorder are very similar to that of ADHD, but the two diagnoses are separate. Similarly, self-regulation is different from executive functioning, although the two are alike.
Who can diagnose executive functioning disorder?
If you suspect that your child may have executive functioning disorder, first talk to your primary care physician. Your pediatrician should be able to give you a referral to a child psychologist or a psychologist or pediatric neuropsychologist. In no way, shape, or form, is this article to serve as a means of holistic diagnosis of a child, but rather as a resource or guide to help you relay your concern to your child’s primary care doctor.
Who struggles with it?
Individuals on the Autism spectrum, ADHD, and learning disorders are a few of the different types of individuals who struggle with executive functioning disorder. That being said, executive functioning disorder is sometimes a difficulty of individuals who have also suffered head or brain trauma, and dementia or Alzheimer’s.
What’s going on in the brain?
For individuals who struggle with executive functioning, the frontal lobe is largely responsible. The frontal lobe is the part of the brain that sits right behind your forehead and controls cognitive skills. To really help you understand the job of the frontal lobe in the brain, here’s a pretty succinct definition from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry:
The frontal lobe is the part of the brain that helps people to organize, plan, pay attention, and make decisions. Parts of the frontal lobe may mature a few years later in people with ADHD.
The frontal lobe functions as kind of a way that our personality develops and how we interact with our environments. Due to the fact that executive functioning primarily affects the frontal lobe of the brain, it can be difficult for individuals with ADHD, SPD, and ASD have brains whose frontal lobe often matures slower than neurotypical peers. Again, citing the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the frontal lobe is responsible for the following:
- Problem Solving
- Impulse control
- Social behavior
- Ability to delay gratification
- Time perception
Sound familiar to you? Right, it’s pretty similar to the difficulties individuals with executive functioning disorder struggle with. This, as previously mentioned, is due to the fact that individuals with SPD, ASD, and ADHD, have a frontal lobe that matures slower than the norm, which can cause them to struggle with executive functioning. Individuals who have sustained head trauma or brain injury may have an affected frontal lobe and consequently, their executive functioning abilities can be impaired. Those with Alzheimer’s or dementia may have difficulty with executive functioning due to the fact that the entirety of the brain is affected by memory loss, causing difficulty focusing and completing tasks.
How can I help it?
One of the main things that help with executive functioning is therapy. Therapy, therapy, therapy. You really can’t go wrong with enlisting the help of an occupational therapist.
In addition, visual schedules can be a great way to help individuals complete an overall task. Spelling out the ins and outs of how to complete a task in a visual way is one of the best ways to help a kiddo.
On the same note as visual schedules, try out a checklist, or a to-do list. Having a specific order of things expressed in a visual way is one of the best ways an individual with executive functioning disorder may be benefited.
Individuals with ADHD and SPD are oftentimes highly motivated by visuals, and the use of visual schedules and visual cues can help them with their executive functioning. In addition, try to minimize distractions by keeping the workspace and learning environments relatively clean and tidy.
Use a Time Timer. As we stated before, staying on task in a reasonable timeframe can be difficult for those with executive functioning issues. A Time Timer is a way to visually see and understand how much time is to be put into a task. These are great for everyone that suffers from executive functioning disorder, from ADHD, ASD, brain injury, and dementia or Alzheimer’s.
(insert pic of time timer)
Communicate the expectations of how to complete a task. Spelling out the ins and outs of how to accomplish a task, and then allowing the individual to complete the task on their own can genuinely benefit an individual who struggles with executive functioning.
Similarly, allow them to problem-solve. This can help in the process, determine what works and what doesn’t. Don’t show them how to complete a task and then figuratively hold their hand until that task is done. That type of assistance doesn’t actually help anyone. Giving them the freedom to fail can allow them to learn how to succeed.
Like anything, these kinds of things take time. Helping your loved one with executive functioning is not going to be a quick fix. It’s like gardening—you need Miracle Grow, sunlight, water, and a lot of patience. Just remember that even on the days where it feels like you’re walking backward with progress, you’re at least working towards something. It’s okay to have setbacks. Keep on keeping on, and you will see improvements over time.