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Executive Functioning: Air Traffic Control for Your Brain!

September 18, 2019
By Dr. Natalie Montfort

Do you know people in your home or classroom who are always losing their belongings, forgetting important items, getting lost from the kitchen to the bedroom, running chronically late, or just generally seems like a "mess?" Weak executive functioning could be to blame!

Executive functioning is a general term that refers to our mind’s mental manager, or the cognitive processes that regulate our thinking and behavior. While there are many models of executive functioning, most include the individual’s ability to generate ideas, initiate or begin a task, stick to and finish a task, flexibly problem-solve, shift from one idea or topic to another, inhibit our impulses, ignore distractions, regulate attention, regulate our behavioral and emotional responses, use feedback to guide future behavior, select relevant goals, organize materials, hold information in mind until needed, and more. I like to think of our executive functions as air-traffic control for our brain or as the conductor of the mind’s orchestra.

When all is well, cognitive processes flow smoothly and behavior fits the situation as expected. When there are problems… well, just imagine the airport with poor air-traffic control! Executive functioning is needed for all aspects of life. Socially, we need executive functioning to help us regulate our behavior and emotions when we are upset. After all, throwing the board game when we are losing is frowned upon… particularly in adolescence or adulthood! We spend a great portion of time controlling our impulses to speak out in school or a meeting, to refrain from spending too much money, or even from overeating. Executive functions help us to arrive on-time, prepared, and with a plan for how to behave. They are also critically important for academic success. Not only are executive functions needed for decoding written text, reading comprehension, solving math word-problems, and long division, they are also needed to be an organized, efficient student who remembers homework and can plan for projects and tests. These days, if you are not in the right place, with the right things, at the right time, it is difficult to be a good student, no matter how bright you are! In fact, being in the right place, with the right things, at the right time is the very basis of holding a job.

When there is executive disfunctioning, life may feel chaotic or unproductive. The child or adult may experience social, academic, or employment difficulties and/or problems in the home. The good news is that executive functions are thought to be able to be developed or strengthened. These skills first begin developing in infancy as babies are learning to wait to have their needs met. They really come ‘on board’ in the brain around age two as children learn they are active agents in their own world. Beyond that age, executive functions are thought to keep developing into young adulthood. Just as they can be strengthened, executive functions can be weakened or damaged. Neurological insults from accidents, injuries, or other sources can impact executive functioning temporarily or long-term.

Executive disfunction is often part of the presentation of neurodevelopmental disorders such as Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and Specific Learning Disability. Although executive functioning is thought to be the most impaired in the aforementioned conditions, it is also implicated in conditions such as anxiety, depression, and even medical conditions such as low blood sugar. Problems with executive functioning are often what bring families to seek help from psychologists, psychiatrists, or doctors.

Understanding the importance of executive functioning is the first step to facilitating its development. The ‘Practice Makes Perfect’ principle applies here. If a child has no experience planning for their day or organizing their materials, it is unlikely that he or she will simply arrive at this skill in high school.

From the time they are small, children should be encouraged to help with planning and organizing. A toddler may not be able to make a sandwich, but they can help pack a lunch. Likewise, a young child who cannot do their own laundry can sort laundry or help pick out clean clothes for tomorrow.

Children can also help with the planning and preparation for parties, event, and projects. Learning how to react when what we want is not available, what to do when we forget something important, and how to persist with the temptation of distractions are all valuable skills that adults need to afford children. Children can have fun while they help adults with household tasks and learn these skills. They can also work on these skills in their play.

Childhood games have been shown to improve the executive skills of preschool children. Games such as Simon Says, Red Light Green Light, and Mother May I all help children to practice attending, inhibiting impulses, problem-solving, regulating behavior, and regulating emotions. For older children, yard games such as Freeze Tag and Capture the Flag can be helpful. Board games are also great ways to develop flexibility, inhibition, problem-solving, and shifting. Some favorites for young children are Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders. These games are great for teaching flexible thinking by changing the rules. Some fun examples are to play the board backwards or try to be the last one to cross the finish line! For older children, strategy games such as chess, Chinese checkers, or Risk may be helpful. Children and adults also tend to enjoy German-style or Euro board games. These games tend to minimize conflict and luck and emphasize problem-solving strategy. Some popular examples are: Ticket to Ride, Settlers of Catan, Small World, and Dominion. These games require planning, problem-solving, shifting strategies, and many other executive functions to master despite relatively easy game play and moderate playing times.

In addition to practicing executive functioning skills throughout life, accommodations and supports for weak executive functioning are often helpful. For example, making lists, using sticky-note reminders, using alarms, and having organizational systems in place can help support executive functioning skills. There are several books available with excellent strategies for support. Some of my favorites are: Smart, but Scattered: The Revolutionary “Executive Skills” Approach to Helping Kids Reach Their Potential by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare; The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children by Ross Greene, PhD; and The Asperkid’s Launch Pad: Home Design to Empower Everyday Superheroes by Jennifer Cook O'Toole.

Executive functioning skills take effort and experience to develop over time. For families requiring guidance to facilitate growth in their loved one’s executive functioning, many services and providers exist. The Stewart Center at The Westview School offers individual therapy to facilitate executive functioning in adolescents and adults, group therapy for fun skill-building in children, as well as parent coaching and case management to assist families in promoting these skills in their daily lives at home. For more information, contact 713-973-1842 or info@stewartcenterhouston.org.