Executive Function (EF) is the set of cognitive skills that help us cope with everyday challenges. From remembering birthdays and telephone numbers, to following instructions in school or at work and regulating our emotions throughout the day, we utilize EF skills in almost every aspect of our daily lives.
Strong EF skills increase our ability to learn new information, problem-solve and make sound decisions. It regulates our frustration and anxiety and helps us inhibit impulsive or inappropriate behaviour so that we can build positive relationships with others.
School-going children rely on their emerging EF skills to help them read, write and learn as well as to play with other children. Not surprisingly, children with weak EF skills often find it challenging in the classroom as well as in the playground where they have to negotiate play with other children. Children with weak EF often have trouble controlling their impulses, waiting their turn, staying focused on their work or remembering the teacher’s instructions. They often fail to complete their assignments or have trouble starting on them. Their desks and schoolbags are often in a mess and they frequently lose their belongings. At the playground, children with weak EF often have difficulty negotiating or remembering their roles when playing with other children. This often causes play to fall apart, exacerbating feelings of frustration for everyone involved.
While we aren’t born with a set of well-developed EF skills, the good news is that EF can be developed and strengthened through practice over time. Studies show that while our genetic blueprint provide an indication of our capacity to learn these skills, early childhood environments also play an important part in the development of executive function capacities that children will rely on throughout their lives. Therefore, it is very important to provide opportunities for children to build EF skills at home, at school and in any other settings they experience regularly so that they can have successful lives and contribute positively to their communities. Educational Therapy is also an increasingly popular option to address weak executive functions. Through highly-personalised one-on-one sessions, children are given the opportunity to work on their weaknesses and gain confidence through practice and experiencing success in the application of EF skills in a controlled environment. This therapeutic approach also allows the student to face the emotional aspects of their personal challenges and develop healthy copy strategies.
Below are a few pointers to help your child strengthen their Executive Function:
- Use timers and work organisers to plan their day
- Use colour-coded or sectioned notebooks for different subjects
- Mark datelines on a calendar to monitor progress
- Use checklists to keep track of tasks
- Explore memory aids such an mnemonics
- Adapt learning aids/techniques to the strengths of their learning styles (such as audio recordings of classes for the auditory learner)
- Break down problems into manageable chunks
- Use realistic estimates to allocate time to spend on tasks
- Facilitate your child to generate and select best solutions for problem-solving
- Encourage your child to reflect and consider options before acting upon a first thought
If your child is experiencing signs of weak EF, this does not mean they cannot flourish in school, work and personal life. It is important to recognise these difficulties as early as possible and seek help for your struggling learner before their difficulties overwhelm them.
- Behaviour Rating Inventory or Executive Function (BRIEF), (2000). Gioia, Isquitg, Guy & Kenworthy, 2000.
- Blair, C. & Diamond, A. (2008). Biological processes in prevention and intervention: The promotion of self-regulation as a means of preventing school failure. Development and Psychopathology, 20(3), 899-911.
- National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, (2011), Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function. Working Paper No. 11, http://www.developingchild.harvard.edu