A brief and simple yet sophisticated understanding of Executive Functions will help you to appreciate how we work and why we engage the process that we do. It also will help you understand the role of the family in supporting a student’s successful Executive Function acquisition.
Executive Functions (EFs), as the name implies, are a collection of skills and abilities that depend on an area of the brain called the pre-frontal cortex. EFs are essential for mindful, attentional, goal-directed behavior.
There are three Core Executive Functions: (i) Inhibitory Control involves the ability to say no to yourself and resist distraction, (ii) Working Memory involves the ability to hold ideas in your memory and manipulate them so that you can follow a conversation, complex directions, etc., and (iii) Cognitive Flexibility involves the ability to solve problems you have not seen before and take advantage of new information. Of note, Cognitive Flexibility will be especially important for individuals to be able to adapt and respond to the rapid changes in the “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” which involves artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, and 3-D printers.
These three core functions are the foundation for higher-order EFs, including Problem Solving, Reasoning, and Planning.
While a child’s most obvious presenting EF difficulty may be a sloppy desk or a failure to use a planner, a foundation of EF skills needs to be laid and worked on. Otherwise, simply organizing a desk or giving a student a planner will be ineffective and certainly do little in terms of acquiring the neurocognitive wiring for the other important aspects of Executive Function. In order for EF acquisition to be effective, a child must have the opportunity to engage in something they are passionate about or see the relevance of in their lives, and then practice and push themselves to be better at it.