Executive Functioning has become a catchphrase in psychology, parenting, and, increasingly, education. Executive functioning is mediated by the frontal lobe. You can think of it as the conductor of the orchestra. Or the chef of a bustling kitchen. You can have very talented musicians, but the orchestra doesn’t do so well without the guidance and direction of the conductor. Similarly, even in the most delicious or skilled restaurant settings, the head chef is required to pull together all of the stations, to make and serve the perfect meal.
We use executive function when we perform such activities as planning, organizing, prioritizing, self-monitoring, strategizing, and paying attention to and remembering details. People with executive function problems have difficulty with planning, organizing, processing information, and managing time and space. They also show weakness with “working memory” (keeping information in your mind while working).
Why is executive function important?
In school, at home or in the workplace, we’re called on all day, every day, to self-regulate behavior. Normally, features of executive function are seen in our ability to:
- make plans
- keep track of time
- keep track of more than one thing at once
- meaningfully include past knowledge in discussions
- engage in group dynamics/interactions
- evaluate and analyze ideas
- reflect on our work
- change our minds and make corrections while thinking, reading and writing
- finish work on time
- ask for help
- wait to speak until we’re called on
- seek more information when we need it.
These skills allow us to finish our work on time, understand if we are doing it right, ask for help when needed, manage our time, and seek more information.
Problems with executive function may be manifested when a person:
- has difficulty planning a project
- Frequently procrastinates
- has trouble comprehending how much time a project will take to complete
- struggles to tell a story (verbally or in writing); has trouble communicating details in an organized, sequential manner
- has difficulty with the mental strategies involved in memorization and retrieving information from memory
- has trouble initiating activities or tasks, or generating ideas independently
- has difficulty retaining information while doing something with it; e.g., remembering a phone number while dialing.
How do we identify problems with executive function?
There is no single test or even battery of tests that identifies all of the different features of executive function. Educators, psychologists, speech-language pathologists and others have used measures including the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test (Berg, 1948), the Category Test (Reitan, 1979), the Trail Making Test (Reitan, 1979), and the Progressive Figures and Color Form Tests (Reitan & Wolfson, 1985) to name a few.
Careful observation and interviewing are invaluable in identifying, and better understanding, weaknesses in this area. It’s often helpful to receive information from another person who observes the behaviors, such as a parent, coach, spouse, or teacher.
Strategies to improve executive function.
There are many effective strategies one can use in when faced with the challenge of problems with executive function.
Here are some methods to try:
- Take step-by-step approaches to work; rely on visual organizational aids.
- Use tools like time organizers, reminders, computers or watches with alarms.
- Prepare visual schedules and review them several times a day.
- Ask for written directions with oral instructions whenever possible.
- Plan and structure transition times and shifts in activities.
- Create checklists and “to do” lists, estimating how long tasks will take.
- Break long assignments into chunks and assign time frames for completing each chunk.
- Use visual calendars to keep track of long term assignments, due dates, chores, and activities.
- Use management software such as the Franklin Day Planner, Palm Pilot, or Lotus Organizer.
- Organize work space.
- Minimize clutter.
- Consider having separate work areas with complete sets of supplies for different activities.
- Schedule a weekly time to clean and organize the work space, including your desk, work bag or backpack.
- Make a checklist for getting through tasks and assignments. For example, a student’s checklist could include such items as: get out pencil and paper; put name on paper; put due date on paper; read directions; etc.
- Meet with a teacher or supervisor on a regular basis to review work; troubleshoot problems.
- Doing chores at home has been shown to improve executive function for young people. Sequential tasks facilitate frontal lobe development. For example, learning to do laundry includes sorting clothing by fabric or color, learning how to put the correct amount of clothing into the washer, putting in laundry detergent and softener, learning stuff how to pick the correct settings, taking clothing out in a timely fashion after it’s completed, putting clothes in the dryer, the correct setting for the dryer, removing clothing, folding, putting items away.