Executive Functions: Discover everything you need to know

Published : Apr 11, 2024
By Dr. Ana Aznar

What are Executive Functions?

They are a set of mental skills that we use every day. We use them all the time without even thinking about it.

There are three set of executive function skills:

  • Working memory: It’s the ability to hold information in mind and mentally working with it. It’s the workbench of the brain. Working memory allows us to take notes in a meeting, remember what to say while listening to others, or mentally make a plan. 

  • Cognitive flexibility: It’s the ability to see things from another perspective, be creative, and adjust to unexpected challenges. It allows us to understand how someone else is feeling or to find creative solutions to a problem. 

  • Inhibitory control: It’s our ability to resist temptations, keep focus, and give well-thought responses instead of impulsive ones. It allows us, for example, not to speak over someone or not to eat the cake because we are trying to lose weight. 

Why are they important?

They are our mental tool kit. We need this kit to succeed in just about every aspect of life. From the important things to the everyday chores. Some people refer to executive function skills as the CEO of the brain.

Research shows that when our executive functions (EFs) are not well established, we may have problems in almost every aspect of life: 

  • Mental health: poor EFs are impaired in mental disorders such as depression, addictions, or schizophrenia.

  • Physical health: poorer EFs have been linked with drug use, overeating, and obesity

  • Quality of life: People with better EFs enjoy a better quality of life

  • School readiness: EFs are more important for school readiness than reading, maths ability and IQ

  • School success: EFs predict reading and maths competence throughout school 

  • Job success: poor EFs are linked with difficulty finding and keeping a job, and poor productivity

  • Romantic relationships: living with a partner with poor EFs may be more difficult as they may be more likely to be impulsive, be inflexible 

  • Public safety: people who engage in crime, violence, and risky behaviour have been found to have poor EFs

How do Executive Functions develop?

Executive Functions are housed in the prefrontal lobe of the brain. This is the last bit of the brain to develop. It doesn’t fully develop until the early 20s. 

The most basic executive function skills, like control, flexibility, keep focused, and working memory begin to develop shortly after birth, with a sharp increase between ages 3-5. For example, from the age of 2 we are already teaching children to control themselves and not hit other children or snatch from other kids. 

The more complex skills, such as planning, organization, time-management, getting on with things, develop during the teenage years. Cognitive flexibility is the latest skill to develop because it builds on working memory and inhibitory control. 

How do children learn about executive functions?

Executive function skills are learnt in the context of social relationships. 

The main way through which children learn is by observing their parents and other relevant adults in their lives. This is called modelling. And this is the main way they learn about EFs. For example, a child sees that her mum doesn’t lose it when the milk has been moved from its usual place at the supermarket. He is learning that unexpected things happen in life and that we don’t throw a fit because of it. He is learning about flexibility, which is an executive function skill.

As parents we also explicitly teach our children about these skills. If we think about the same example, when we noticed that the milk has been moved, we say: “Oh dear, they have moved the milk. This is frustrating but let’s go and ask someone where the milk is now”. By saying this, we are teaching our children how to react to an unexpected situation and how to handle it. We are explicitly teaching them about flexibility. 

Research shows that children develop their executive function skills more effectively when they have a supportive relationship with the adults in their life, when they have consistent routines, and when their parents are ‘good’ models. 

Establishing healthy family practices such as cleaning all backpacks every Sunday, keeping devices out of the bedrooms, planning the week ahead or having a designated and quiet time to do homework, benefit children. 

It is important to consider that executive functions also have a genetic component. So, it may be that if you struggle with certain skills, your child may do too. 

What are the signs that a child may be struggling with executive functions?

There are many signs and different children will manifest it in different ways. 

A clear sign is a lack of physical organization: notebooks are disorganized, pieces of paper are everywhere, and bits and bobs of the uniform get constantly lost. 

Other children may struggle with time management, it may take them a long time to start a task, or they may get distracted often. 

EFs are influenced by stress and sleep. Think how everything is much more difficult when we haven’t slept properly! Checking how much sleep a child is getting is always recommended. 

Be mindful of what is going on in your child’s life. Are they going through a rough time at home? Have they just changed schools? Is there a new sibling in the family? Stress have been shown to delay the development of executive functions skills. 

When to bring in professional support?

EFs can be improved. If you have a child that is really struggling, and you have been supporting them, but things are not improving, it may be time to seek help. 

If supporting your child is getting in the way of your relationship, it is also a good idea to seek help. 

There are professionals called executive function coaches. They will have regular sessions with the child to support the development of the skills they are struggling with. 

Executive function coaches are relatively new to this space, so if you decide that you need a coach, remember to check their credentials, and make sure they have the right experience. We can help you find the right professional. Let us know if you need help!

There are other methods to improve EFs. A computerized training called CogMed®; and taekwondo have been shown to improve children’s EFs. 

What about neurodivergent children?

Many of them struggle with executive functions and may acquire them at a slower pace than typically developing children. 

Research shows a strong link between poor EFs and ADHD. Indeed, ADHD is a disorder of the prefrontal lobe where EFs are housed. Nearly all children with ADHD have some challenges with executive function skills. They are more likely to struggle with working memory, inhibitory control, and emotional regulation. 

In the case of children with autism, their EF skills may trail behind those of peers by many years. 

Children with dyslexia are more likely to have problems with working memory. This creates difficulties with spelling. 

Neurodivergent children benefit from the same techniques that we have just discussed to improve their EFs, although in their case, it may take longer to see improvements. 

We hope you find this information useful. It’s worth knowing about EFs to be able to support your child’s development. Knowing about EFs allows you to support them in areas that they may be struggling and to adjust your expectations, based on the developmental stage they are at.  

If you would like some support or would like to get more information on this topic, do not hesitate to get in touch with me at ana@recparenting.com

Much love, 

Ana

Dr Ana Aznar

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Comments
xSpEtKBCLfXAkDGz
2024-05-25 10:30:15
TUHkvaDFqPh
kqeNQJSn
2024-05-25 10:29:27
rmukIwiUEhjlOGFY
Dr. Ana Aznar
2024-05-17 09:55:58
Hi Donna,
sO great to have you here! Totally agree that Zara is great! What other topics would you like us to discuss?
Ana
Donna
2024-05-17 09:49:36
Love Zara’s ways of teaching for both parents & kids! Also so helpful. We want more!! (Please!) :D
Ana Aznar
2024-05-08 07:24:31
We are glad you found the content useful! Many thanks for being here.
Ana
https://WWW.Waste-Ndc.pro/community/profile/tressa79906983/
2024-05-04 14:40:38
I couldn't resist commenting. Very well written! https://WWW.Waste-Ndc.pro/community/profile/tressa79906983/
Cristoj
2024-04-09 18:20:19
Great article!!!

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