Executive functioning skills are a set of mental processes for self-management. These skills help one to organize and act on information, manage thoughts, actions and emotions. It is a set of strategies that allow an individual to approach tasks in an organized and effective manner.
Executive functioning skills are involved in:
Children and adults use these skills every day to stop and think before acting, create plans, manage time and responsibilities, track their goals, problem solve, regulate emotions, change or revise strategies interact effectively with others, and many other significant tasks.
Some children, with continued maturity, teaching, support and some trial and error, develop adequate executive function skills or compensate for weaknesses. Other Children who continue to struggle with executive functioning skills may have difficulty attending to information, make adaptive choices, organize and manage time, control impulses and maintain on task behavior.
Here are some ways to support and enhance the development of these important skills.
Although children are born with the potential to develop executive functioning skills, parents, caregivers and educators can further promote this through scaffolding and support. Some key goals related to executive functioning for young children include modeling routines and prosocial behavior while creating supportive, reliable relationships.
In the preschool years, opportunities for creative play and social interactions are crucial. For toddlers, conversation, storytelling, imaginary play, matching/sorting games all help with the progression of executive functioning skills. Games can enhance these skills by tapping into self-regulation mechanisms and social skills development.
For school age children, steadily increasing the complexity of games and activities provides opportunities to enhance memory, thinking and self-regulation skills. Activities such as card games, board games and organized sports allow children to hold complicated rules and strategies in mind, monitor their own and others’ actions and make quick decisions while responding with flexibility. It is essential for children to begin to understand how they think and to start to approach tasks using the skills of organization, prioritization, flexible thinking, and shifting attention, while using their working memory and practicing self-monitoring.
To assist children who may experience challenges, families can set up calendars and model the use of planning skills.
Children can also be taught to consider long term projects and break them down into smaller, more manageable tasks by making to do lists with due dates. They can estimate the amount of time they would need for task completion and plan accordingly. Parents can assist with prioritizing tasks based on different factors, such as due date or task difficulty, so they can learn to approach work tasks in a variety of ways. Continuing to create comfortable routines and maintaining communication with the classroom teacher is also essential.
The increasing demands of middle school require competency with organization in order to become a more independent learner, complete homework, plan and execute long-term projects and develop essential study habits.
Although many children develop executive functioning skills through typical activities, including their academic environment, sports and music training, some will benefit from direct coaching and skill development that can be planned through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) interventions.
Adolescence presents unique challenges with respect to executive functioning. Although these skills have not yet reached adult capabilities, academic and social demands are significant. The many responsibilities that teens need to manage span academic, social and extracurricular activities. They are required to complete complex tasks and communicate effectively with others. Sports, music, strategy games can all continue to enhance working memory, planning and attention, and healthy group dynamics.
CBT can guide and support the on-going development of executive functioning, particularly for children who may have attentional difficulties, behavioral challenges and or learning disabilities. For instance, strategies for self-monitoring to promote emotion regulation, impulse control and prosocial behavior can be taught directly.
Self-monitoring involves the ability to be aware of one’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors, to use self-regulation skills, as well as self-talk strategies to engage in adaptive actions. It is the ability to monitor and evaluate one’s own performance. Flexible thinking allows one to shift to a new approach when a situation calls for it. In this regard, children can learn to be more effective with change in routines and transitions. Awareness improves the ability to stop and think, consider the experiences of others, anticipate outcomes and adapt to new situations.
Another area of concern related to this skill set is task initiation and procrastination. CBT can determine how a child’s pattern of thinking, lack of problem-solving and limited organizational skills can impede learning. In addition, it can offer skills to be aware of how thinking affects emotions and behaviors, engage in prosocial behaviors, improve interpersonal problem solving and tolerate frustration and failure.
Here are some ways to help teens navigate their complex world.
The use of technology has become an integral part of our daily life.
*It is essential that teens and families consider how to best incorporate this into their hectic lives while recognizing that multi-tasking can drain attention and impede performance, particularly for kids who struggle with inattention and exhibit difficulties with study and organizational habits.
Developing good study habits is essential throughout a child’s academic career and becomes more crucial during adolescence. Although some teens develop these habits organically, others benefit from direct training.
In summary, Executive Functioning abilities are a broad set of mental skills that allow for paying attention, recalling information, planning, organizing, prioritizing, managing time and responsibilities, regulating emotions and behaviors, reflecting on decisions and self-correcting.
These crucial abilities come into play in learning, social relationships and the experiencing of emotions and behaviors. Children can be supported in the development of these skills. Cognitive behavioral therapy can further promote Executive Functioning abilities, particularly for children who struggle with attention, learning or behavioral challenges.
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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