Executive functions are the cognitive skills we use to control and regulate our thoughts, emotions and actions to achieve goals. These three main areas of executive function work together:
- Self-control/ inhibition – the ability to resist doing something distracting/ tempting in order to do what’s needed to complete a given task, helping us to pay attention, act less impulsively and stay focused.
- Working memory – the ability to hold information in mind and use it to make connections between ideas, make mental calculations and prioritize action.
- Cognitive flexibility – the ability to think creatively, switch gears and be flexible to changing requests and situations, allowing us to use imagination and creativity to solve problems.
For example, all three areas are needed in social pretend play:
- Child needs to hold their own role and those of others in mind (working memory)
- Child needs to inhibit acting out of character (employ self-control), and
- Child needs to flexibly adjust to twists and turns in the evolving plot (cognitive flexibility)
The joint forces of our executive function skills can be thought about as . . .
- the conductor of an orchestra, organising multiple instruments to make one unified sound or
- an air-traffic controller managing safe take-off and landing for hundreds of air-craft
Executive functions are controlled by the frontal lobes of the brain which are connected with and control the activities in many other regions of the brain.
Hot and Cool Executive Functions
Hot executive functions are the self-management skills we use in the heat of the moment when emotions run high – they require concerted conscious effort and help us give up short term gain for the sake of a more important goal. Examples include: resisting temptation; focusing on a boring task; breaking an old habit; and biting our lip when angry. Cool executive functions are the skills we use when emotions aren’t really a factor. Examples include: remembering a list of numbers and repeating them back in reverse order and following a simple recipe.
Executive function skills are a vital part of learning. They help children to be in the right place at the right time with the right equipment, listen to the teacher, wait for a turn and not call out. They are also pivotal in managing frustration, getting started on a task, staying focused, accepting constructive criticism and asking for appropriate help. They enable children to notice and correct mistakes, prioritise, persevere and complete challenging activities, resist the urge to retaliate and feel more confident about managing in school.
Children with under-developed executive function skills may act without thinking, overreact to small problems, be upset by changes in plans, forget to hand in homework, delay starting effortful tasks, switch between tasks without finishing any, lose or misplace things, struggle to meet deadlines and set goals, and lack insight into their behaviour.
Factors which can make it harder to access our executive function include tiredness and sleep deprivation, dyslexia and more complex learning difficulties, neuro-developmental conditions like Autism and ADHD, environments which overwhelm our senses and create stress, one-off traumatic incidents and complex trauma as a result of Adverse Childhood Experiences.
Given their significance, difficulties with Executive Function can contribute to social, emotional and mental health difficulties if they are unsupported and children who are already vulnerable for any of the above reasons may experience a compounding of the challenges they face. It is therefore essential that we take time to understand what these issues look like for each individual and adjust parenting, schooling and community interventions accordingly.
Look out for my forthcoming blog – Executive Function Skills (Part 2) for ideas on how to support children with these difficulties.
Brighton and Hove Psychotherapy is a collective of experienced psychotherapists, psychologists and counsellors working with a range of client groups, including fellow therapists and health professionals. If you would like more information, or an informal discussion please get in touch with us. Online therapy is available.
Additional resources –
- UNDERSTOOD website: https://www.understood.org/en/learning-thinking-differences/child-learning-disabilities/executive-functioning-issues/what-is-executive-function
- The book Why Can’t I Do That? A Book About Switches by Fi and Gail Newood is designed to help children understand what Executive Function skills are and how they link to everyday challenges.
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