Executive Functions: When The CEO Is Away

Executive functions are the daily skills we use to accomplish just about everything. They act like our “brain’s CEO” and help us:

  • Plan
  • Organize
  • Make decisions
  • Shift between situations or thoughts
  • Control our emotions and impulsivity
  • Learn from past mistakes

Empty Chair

Kids rely on their executive functions for everything from taking a shower to packing a backpack and picking priorities. Children are born with the potential to develop these skills that emerge in late infancy but do not peak until around the age of 25. Executive functioning is sensitive to and impeded by stress.

Executive development happens primarily in the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain more sensitive to stress than any other. Unlike anywhere else in the brain, even mild stress can flood the prefrontal cortex with the neurotransmitter dopamine, which causes executive functioning to shut down (Diamond, 2010).

What Do EF Problems Look Like?

In school, EF problems can manifest as:

  • Lateness
  • Difficulty transitioning
  • Impulsiveness
  • Poor test-taking abilities
  • Difficulty remembering and completing assignments

At home, EF problems can come out as:

  • Difficulty with morning or nighty routines
  • Following general directions

Often, deficits in executive functions can appear as though students are being lazy, oppositional, or have a lack of motivation. When a student has trouble starting an essay or finishing math work it is easy to assume the student is making a choice not to do the task, when in fact it’s not a choice at all. The student may have neurological deficits that can persist or can change with appropriate interventions.

Tools For Interventions

  • Checklists – the steps necessary for completing a task often aren’t obvious to kids with executive dysfunction, and defining them clearly ahead of time makes a task less daunting and more achievable
  • Set time limits – estimate how long you believe an activity will take and then record the actual time. Children are often surprised how much they miscalculate time.
  • Use a planner – teach students how to use planners
  • Establish a routine – daily schedules help take the guess work out of decisions
  • Break big tasks into multiple smaller tasks – this appears less overwhelming

Tips For Parents

  • Consult with a specialist on executive function problems and learn how to create structure, cues, prompts, and reinforcements that will be helpful to your child.
  • Notice and support your child’s strengths. Work on having realistic expectations. Assume that your child is doing the best he or she can do.
  • Try to talk to your child in a neutral tone and give simple directives without judgment.
  • Set an example for your child by being mindful of your own state and emotions. Practice learning to pause, stop and think before reacting.
  • Take the pressure off your relationship with your child. Relieve yourself of being the primary one responsible for helping your child with homework. Get a tutor and possibly an “organizational tutor” whose job it is to help children keep track of their assignments and organize their work.

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