What is Executive Functioning?
Executive functioning (EF) skills are a set of self-management tools that are critical for learning. These skills support our efforts in attaining numerous goals. Children are born with the potential to develop these critical skills, which begin early and peak around the mid-twenties.
There are three primary categories of executive functioning skills:
1) Working memory
2) Impulse control
3) Thinking skills
Working memory is the ability to keep and mentally manipulate information. This is the type of memory we use when we take notes or remember the rules of a game.
Impulse control refers to the ability of an individual to inhibit certain responses that do not match the goal they are trying to achieve. It is, for example, the ability to stay focused on a class assignment even though your classmate is being distracting.
Thinking skills and mental flexibility allow one to create a plan, adapt to changing circumstances and solve complex problems. It is the ability to think flexibly and shift strategies.
As early as infancy, children are starting to develop working memory. For example, recognizing that a toy is hidden under a blanket involves the early stages of working memory. Children can use their rapidly developing thinking skills to pull the blanket in order to retrieve the toy.
Between the ages of 3 and 5, toddlers can keep two different rules in mind, can delay immediate gratification and can understand that different rules apply to different contexts, such as using their inside voice. By age 6 and through the age of 12, working memory becomes more complex. Between age 5 and 8, impulse control evolves rapidly. The critical period of change for thinking skills is between age 7 and 9 when flexible thinking and the ability to shift tactics start to evolve further.
During adolescence, executive functioning skills develop rapidly. In terms of working memory, adolescents can remember the main topics of a lesson while taking notes. At this age, children can also manage shifting their attention and ignoring irrelevant information. Thinking skills help them navigate ever more sophisticated social rules.
Between the ages of 19 and 25 working memory continues to improve and allows individuals to remember complex job responsibilities. At this point, impulse control is relatively consistent and stable. The ability to assess complex problems and have insight into behavior also solidifies at this age.
Many children, with maturation, teaching and some trial and error, will learn these skills independently. Some children, for example, those with a diagnosis of ADHD and/or Learning Disability, may need additional support in order to adequately develop executive functioning skills.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can provide skills in a structured and pragmatic way. Challenges such as poor impulse control, emotional dysregulation, low frustration tolerance, and procrastination/avoidance can all be addressed within this format. Within the CBT format, children can learn to monitor and regulate emotions and improve social competence. CBT can provide tools for flexibility and adaptation to novel situations and transitions. In addition, executive functioning skills such as task initiation, planning and anticipating consequences, problem solving, creating and maintaining an organizational system, reducing procrastination and planning projects can all be specific treatment goals.
Read part two of this article which focuses on how parents can support the development of executive functioning skills.
So: What Now?
If you would like to find out more about EF in the context of CBT, please call today.
Anna Breytman, Ph.D.
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