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Executive functioning refers to the cognitive skills required to plan, organize, and execute activities. They are frontal lobe functions that begin to emerge shortly after birth and take a full 25 years to mature. People with attention disorders tend to develop these skills more slowly than others. There are 2 types of executive skills: foundational skills and advanced skills. Foundational executive functioning skills include: response to inhibition, working memory, emotional control, flexibility, sustained attention and task initiation. Advanced executive functioning skills include: Planning, prioritizing, organization, time management, goal directed persistence, metacognition. Foundational skills must be established before the advanced skills can progress. There are ways to teach and improve skills with your children at home. The foundational skills are discussed in this blog.

Foundational EF Skills

Foundational executive functioning skills include: response to inhibition, working memory, emotional control, flexibility, sustained attention and task initiation. Foundational skills are typically developed at a younger age. 

Response to inhibition is the ability to stop and think before we say or do something. Children who develop this skill at an early age have been said to have better life outcomes. This does not mean that children who have weakened response inhibition will be unsuccessful. It means that we need to look at the strategies children with strong response inhibition use and teach them to children who struggle in this area. Talking with your child about their behavior and adding visuals to stop, wait, and think before acting can help. 

Working memory is the ability to hold information in memory while performing complex tasks. It also uses the ability to draw on past learning experiences to apply to the situation at hand. Listing visual reminders or using technology, like Alexa, to remind you or children of things can help with this skill. 

Emotional control is the ability to manage emotions in order to achieve goals, complete tasks, or control and direct behavior. This is a complex executive skill because it combines the hardwiring of the brain with the child’s environment. Children learn to manage their emotions by watching the adults in their lives. Learning mindfulness techniques can help regulate strong emotions. 

Flexibility is the ability to revise plans in the face of obstacles, setbacks, new information, or mistakes. Children with inflexibility may be described as “stubborn” and struggle to cope with unexpected changes in schedules and routines. Modeling different approaches to things and making a “plan b” for if schedules change can help teach your kids how to be flexible.

Sustained attention is the capacity to maintain attention to a situation or task when in the presence of distractions, or when experiencing fatigue or boredom. This does not mean they can’t pay attention, it means they struggle to make themselves pay attention to certain things. Building in breaks for difficult tasks and setting personal goals for tasks can help increase attention and motivation.

Task initiation is the ability to begin tasks without procrastination or in an efficient manner. Breaking a task into small manageable steps is a good place to start for increasing task initiation. Alternating a task with a preferred, timed activity can also help. 

Executive functioning has many components and can feel overwhelming. Remember that executive functioning is a skill that can be learned and improved. Incorporating strategies into your daily life can help you be more efficient and can teach your family members how to be more efficient too.