The term executive functioning has become increasingly popular over the last several years; while historically an area of interest in the field of neuropsychology, it is now not uncommon to hear the term in pediatrician offices, schools, and daycare centers. That being said, there is no universally agreed-upon definition of executive functioning. You will find that different clinicians define it in slightly varying terms or by using an analogy. So, what is executive functioning and why are so many people talking about it?
Many professionals describe executive functioning as the “management” or “supervisory” system of the brain. It refers to the mental processes that allow us to set, monitor, and achieve our goals. More specifically, executive functioning skills include:
Organizing tasks and materials
Getting started on tasks
Following through on tasks
Shifting from one activity to another
Regulating emotions and behavior
Monitoring one’s performance
Executive functioning is closely associated with attention, and individuals with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often struggle with executive functioning. When individuals exhibit significant executive functioning challenges, they can encounter difficulties in school and work. For example, students with executive functioning weaknesses may have trouble keeping track of deadlines, completing assignments in a timely manner, or organizing their ideas in writing. Such difficulties tend to increase (or become more apparent) as their environments place more demands on their ability to independently plan and organize tasks, manage time, and keep track of obligations (e.g., when students transition from elementary to middle school, or from high school to college).
If your child is struggling with executive functioning skills, there are things you can do to help!
Depending on your child’s age, you and/or your child could work with a therapist or ADHD/executive functioning coach
Establish routines to reduce conflict
Help your child break down large tasks into more manageable pieces
Create and use checklists
Set reminders for tasks and activities
Teach your child how to use a planner and support your child in implementing this skil
Psychological testing can also help determine if executive functioning weaknesses rise to a clinically significant level and if such challenges are associated with an underlying neurodevelopmental disorder (e.g., ADHD). An evaluation can also identify the additional interventions and supports that are likely to be beneficial. Within the evaluation, executive functioning is typically assessed in two ways; behavioral ratings scales are completed by the individual, a parent or informant (e.g., spouse, roommate), and (if available) a teacher, and direct measures (norm-referenced neuropsychological tests) are administered during the testing session.
For more information on executive functioning, check out the following resources:
Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD)