There is a lot of talk about executive functioning and it has nothing to do with how well the CEO of a company is doing. Instead, executive functioning (EF for short) is how your brain manages the resources that it has to work with. You can think of EF as the manager for the mind.

Executive functioning isn’t a single skill. It’s a composite of several skills that helps with metacognition (i.e. thinking about thinking). These abilities are centered in our frontal lobes that allow us to plan and self-regulate. Most definitions include the following skills:

  • Inhibition – stop, don’t do that or look before you leap!
  • Shift – ok, I’m paying attention to this; now, I’m paying attention to that.
  • Emotional Control – I will not cry over spilled milk.
  • Initiation – ready, set, go!
  • Working Memory – yes, I can remember your name 30 seconds after you tell me
  • Planning – If I do this and then that and then that, I can get this done
  • Organization – all of the pencils go in this bin and the blue pens go here
  • Self-Monitoring – keep up the good work! It looks like you are sticking with the plan!

Now for a brief detour into neuroscience.

Executive functioning skills mostly sit in the frontal part of the brain (i.e. the frontal and prefrontal cortices) which are among the last parts of the brain to fully develop. Generally, this occurs in late adolescence when myelination (a fatty covering on the axons of neurons) in the frontal and prefrontal cortices wraps up. This covering speeds up the rate at which nerves communicate with each other.

When my wife started teaching middle school after college, she mentioned that several of her students had executive functioning challenges. At the time, the term wasn’t as commonly used now and she wasn’t certain exactly what it meant for her students. You may have noticed that most middle schoolers aren’t great with executive functioning. So while many adolescents are still developing their executive functioning skills, some do face greater challenges.

The little adult assumption mentioned in Michael Phelan’s 1, 2, 3 Magic happens, in part, because we think that our children have the same level of executive functioning skills that we do. Because we can manage to plan and initiate a task using our fully developed frontal and prefrontal cortices, we think that they can also. We need to make sure that we adjust the demands that we make of our children to match their level executive functioning development.

Now think about what you ask your kids to do. How well does your child do each of the parts of executive functioning? Do they struggle with getting started on chores or is emotional regulation more of a challenge? Keep this in mind as you plan tasks for them in order to help them navigate their activities of daily living.

Stay tuned for more posts about executive functioning and help to help kids develop stronger skills.

Dawson, P., & Guare, R. (2004). Executive skills in children and adolescents: a practical guide to assessment and intervention. New York: Guilford Press.

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