‘Executive Functions’: The Tiny Manager in Your Child’s Head

executive functions

Takeaway: To navigate her life, your child needs the various parts of her brain to work as a team. And mental processes called ‘executive functions’ do this coordinating, sort of like a tiny manager in your child’s brain. The three core functions are (1) impulse control, (2) working memory, and (3) mental flexibility. And if these stop working, life becomes so much harder. That’s why we need to diagnose executive-function difficulties early, so we can control them before they have any long-term effects.  

It’s amazing the number of things your child has to get right on an average day.

At home, she has to remember to do her homework, figure out what to take to school, pack her bag, and get bathed and ready on time for school. At school, there are classes to sit through, facts to remember, concepts to understand, and impatient teachers to deal with. And after school, there’s the complex world of children’s politics to navigate (who’s fighting with whom and why?).

To coordinate all of this, her brain uses a set of mental processes called ‘executive functions.’ Think of them as a high-performing manager.

They’re what help her do things like decide what’s important, give it the right amount of attention, switch focus when needed, plan and organise, handle emotions, and so on. Without them, she’d struggle to survive even the simplest of days. But using these executive functions takes effort. It’s easy for her to look out of the window and harder to focus on what the teacher is saying, instead. It’s easy for her to shout at her friend and harder to pause the argument to understand things from his point of view first. And it’s certainly easier to go through life on auto-pilot, rather than do things deliberately.

There are many executive functions but psychologists highlight three core ones on which the others are built.

These feed off each other and are all intricately linked.

1. Controlling impulses and attention.

Ever wondered how your child is sometimes able to listen to what you’re saying even if it’s not something she wants to hear? That’s her executive function at work, curbing her impulse to deny, talk back, or walk away in a huff. It’s her ability to put aside her instincts and do ‘what needs to be done,’ instead. In this case, that’s listening to an adult she trusts because she knows that’s usually a good thing to do. But this self-control isn’t limited to just behaviour. It’s also how she shuts down certain lines of thinking or chooses what in her environment to ignore. In fact, she can change and evolve only because of this executive control. If she can’t pause an old or instinctual response, where’s the space to develop a new one?

2. Remembering what just happened and connecting it to what happens next.

How does your child make sense of what happens to her? She has to pay attention to cause and effect. ‘What just happened? And is it connected to what comes next?’ That’s what her brain is continually asking. And to process all of this, she uses her ‘working memory’. This is what lets her remember and use information even after the source is gone. You can see why this is so important, right? She wouldn’t be able to learn a language without working memory (how would she remember words long enough to piece them together to form sentences and paragraphs?). She wouldn’t be able to figure out how much change to ask for (she needs to hold the numbers in her head and then add and subtract them). She’d even struggle to remember what to pack in her school bag.

3. Looking at things from different points of view.

This could be literal (‘What would things look like if I moved to that part of the room?’) or mental (‘What would this argument be like from his point of view?’). This ability is called ‘cognitive flexibility’ and it uses the executive functions of impulse-control and working memory. To change her perspective, your child needs to pause her old way of seeing things and load a new perspective into her working memory. This sort of adaptability is what makes her creative, helps her innovate, and keeps her open to new opportunities. It can mend relationships, too. Because it allows her to switch perspectives, see when she’s wrong, and apologise when needed.

If her core executive functions aren’t working, your child’s life instantly becomes so much harder.

For example, poor executive functions are often linked to mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and addiction. And they’re connected to ADHD, OCD, and physical health issues like overeating and obesity. They cause problems at school (poor executive functioning is more of a challenge than low IQ), affect her relationships, lead to reckless behaviour, and spur emotional outbursts. And if she can’t plan and organise things, her quality of life will dip rapidly.

That’s why it’s so important to make a diagnosis early — before there are any long term effects.

A educational psychologist can give your child a thorough ‘cognitive assessment’ to explore how her brain is performing. For this, she’ll first have a chat with you to get some background information about your child (academics, medical issues, family relationships, things you’ve noticed, etc.). She’ll then talk to your child and conduct a few standardised tests. This may go on for a session or two, after which she’ll share what she’s learned and help create a care plan for your child.

Thankfully, a well-developed care plan can help your child start a whole new life.

Once you know which skills need to be developed, you can create the right kind of learning environment for your child. This might involve things like setting up new healthy routines, modelling the social behaviour she needs to work on, making space for creative play, and teaching her strategies to cope with stress. This way, she can practise her executive functions with you before having to use them on her own.

Does your child have executive functioning difficulties? Consider consulting a specialist.

The Ed Psych Practice offers consultation, advice, and problem solving for parents, nurseries, schools, and colleges, in London. We have psychologists and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support.

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