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The Truth About Executive Function

Do Kids Need It to Get Ahead?

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Why executive function may be the secret to success—and why it’s sometimes not.
The Truth About Executive Function
When experts talk about executive function, they’re referring to the set of mental abilities that are essential to kids’ learning at home and in school. Children aren’t born with these mental abilities, but they are pre-wired to develop them. Read on to learn what executive function is, why it’s important, how you can help your child develop it, and one surprising fact that may help you think about executive function in a different way.

1. First, executive function is actually plural. Executive function should really be called executive functions, as the term covers a range of abilities that help kids (all of us, in fact) “get the job done” at home, at school, and, later, in the workplace.

2. Executive function is a brain thing. The term executive function is used to describe a range of mental processes, including working memory, self-control, and flexibility, that are controlled mainly by the brain’s frontal lobes, located directly behind the forehead.

Working memory helps kids remember key pieces of information while they are in the middle of an activity. When you tell your child to put on his shoes, zip up his coat, and grab his lunch from the counter, you are calling upon his working memory to remember a sequence of commands.

Self-control enables kids to resist temptations (like laughing at that class clown or speaking out of turn) and to set priorities.

Mental flexibility allows a child to shift his attention to different tasks and adjust to changing demands. The child who refuses to leave the house when he is involved in an absorbing game may be having trouble with mental flexibility.

A child who has weak executive function may struggle to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set goals, and control impulses, making life at home and school more difficult. Kids with strong executive-function and self-regulation skills are able to plan, retain information, pay attention, follow rules, set priorities, and control impulsive thoughts and actions.

3. It’s not all or nothing. No two kids have exactly the same executive-function issues.While one may struggle to start or complete a project, another may have trouble paying attention in class, and a third may grapple with both. Even successful adults have executive-function challenges. Very few of us are consistently good at being organized and thinking ahead.

4. They can (and should be) taught. Executive-function skills need to be modeled and reinforced by parents, caregivers, and teachers. One way to do this is to create stable and predictable schedules. For instance, set a time and a place to do homework each night, show your kids how to use a planner to keep track of assignments, and create predictable bedtime routines. Teaching children board and card games, encouraging music lessons, and advocating physical exercise have all been shown to promote executive-function development. Need more ideas? Try these.

5. They develop more slowly in some children. Some kids, particularly those with ADHD (a disorder that primarily effects EF), may lag behind their peers in developing executive-function skills. An imaging study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, found the brains of kids with ADHD followed a normal growth pattern, but that certain regions were delayed by as much as three years. The delays were most prominent in the regions of the frontal lobe that control thinking, attention, and planning.

6. Symptoms can change over time. How do you know if your child is struggling with executive-function issues? In preschool through grade two,you might notice your child is more easily frustrated than other children his age. He might have frequent tantrums and be quite stubborn about doing things his way. He also might have difficulty listening to and following basic instructions.

Later on, a child with EF difficulties may have trouble finishing assignments and preparing for tests. He might often forget his jacket, lunch box, or books at school. His room might be a mess and the suggestion to clean it up overwhelms him.

7. They are not always beneficial. Sometimes being too logical and too organized can hamper performance. For example, a study at Stanford University that measured the brain activity of adults’ involved in certain creative tasks found the subjects who drew the least creative pictures had higher activity in the executive-control center of the brain. In other words, when the participants’ executive-functions centers were in full gear, creative problem solving suffered. Manish Saggar, Ph.D., an instructor in psychiatry and lead author of the study, explained that sometimes when it comes to creative endeavors, “The more you think about it, the more you mess it up.” 

For more information on kids and executive function, check out the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. It offers a series of free and downloadable activity guides, arranged by age, that provide many helpful suggestions on how to support your child’s executive-function development.

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