Executive Functioning: Thanks for Your Patience While We Are Under Construction…
In the real world, you see this message at construction sites during large-scale projects, renovations, times of transition and expansion. Online, it’s a popular place-holder while companies build or transition a website. We notice them passively, accept them easily. I wish I could slap a sticker on every child’s forehead with a similar message, especially when it comes to Executive Functioning Skills.
Like an air traffic control system carefully manages the arrivals and departures of multiple aircrafts on various runways, the brain has a skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses. It’s called Executive Functioning (EF). These skills (and the brain region under construction that hosts them) have attracted more attention, research, and discussion among educators and scientists in the last decade than ever before. What are the Executive Functions? They are the brain's master command and control system, located in the prefrontal cortex, and they hold the keys to our success as independent, self-helping, problem-solving, productive adults.
The Executive Functions are a series of capacities that take years to develop. Among them, we find:
- Task initiation
- Goal-oriented behavior
- Time management
- Cognitive flexibility
- Working memory
We aren’t born with EF skills; we’re born with the potential to develop them. The frontal lobes are the last region of the brain to fully mature, and for most people, that maturation occurs around our mid-twenties. The facts of biology, though, are at odds with the cultural demands of 21stcentury life. We’re asking young people to complete challenging, more complex work at younger ages. Expecting them to manage increasingly complex and overwhelming quantities of information and inputs as their brains struggle to keep up. Yesterday’s knapsack is today’s rolling suitcase, for students.
While kids, teachers, and parents face growing demands related to academic learning and functioning, the list of expectations (and the speed for their achievement) keeps increasing. We wouldn’t expect a five-month old infant to walk, yet most of us unwittingly hold our kids to unrealistic standards for Executive Functioning (EF) on a regular basis.
EF Skills at Work
What do challenges with EF look like? Since these skills are complex and varied, students may perform unevenly in different areas. This would explain how a child with strong working memory can still be completely disorganized or a child who is cognitively flexible would be terrible at self-monitoring. EF also differs from intelligence. You can have a genius IQ and severely under-developed EF skills (yes, even as an adult). Many people with learning differences who are atypical (neurologically speaking), struggle with EF. For students with attentional difficulties, dyslexia, processing challenges, and those on the spectrum (with Autism or Asperger’s), a longer time frame, scaffolding, and continuous support are crucial, when it comes to EF development. This is also the case for people with anxiety, depression, and other emotional difficulties. In these cases, more intensive interventions, practice, and patience support the gradual development of EF skills, alongside psychotherapeutic support.
Truly, all students (regardless of testing, labels, or diagnoses) need patience, time, and practice, to pave the neural pathways and ready the brain for Executive Functioning. While we may want (and unrealistically expect) our 10 or 11 year olds (or 12-16 year-olds) to self-manage better when it comes to school work, time, organization, and self-regulation, the realities emerging from neuroscience invite us to reconsider. If full maturation of the brain region responsible for EF skills comes in the mid-twenties, but we expect it to happen in the tween or teen years, we are left potentially feeling: frustrated (we’re STILL dealing with this problem?), impatient (what’s taking so long?), discouraged (will it EVER get better?), anxious (what’s wrong with my child?) or a host of other emotions that do little to support these emerging skills in our young people.
It Gets Better
Take heart. EF challenges through elementary, middle, and high school are real, age-appropriate, and expected. Do you recognize these common signs of EF difficulty in your child?
- Leaves parts of assignments unfinished
- Completes homework but does not hand it in
- Misses verbal directions
- Demonstrates variability in academic performance (often due to disorganization/poor time management)
- Misses “unspoken” social rules and cues
- Intends to complete a task, but has trouble “getting around to it” (or through it)
- Struggles with long-term projects
- Has a hard time self-regulating, managing time, or managing emotions
If any of these sound like your child, congratulations! Your child is NORMAL. The struggles are frustrating for them and you but appropriate in their developmental timeline. Try to remind yourself that your child’s brain, just like his or her body, is growing all the time. Like the soft spot on a baby’s head that we protect and stay mindful of until the brain plates close, we can imagine the frontal lobes doing their slow, deliberate growth trajectory toward EF development. But instead of weeks or months, we must stay in it for the long haul (years!), waiting patiently and celebrating small victories along the way. It gets better—over time.
In the meantime, we can support our children in their EF development by helping them establish and maintain good structures and habits for these skills. As we work toward building their internal, independent, self-directed futures, we can give tailored support. Each child is unique, and the solutions are too. Creative, collaborative problem-solving is essential. Practice makes permanent. Flexibility matters. Role Modeling helps. What else can you do to support your child in the journey of EF skill cultivation?
- Direct instruction of relevant strategies is essential. Books, peer-support, tutoring, and your own hard-won knowledge can all assist you in this realm.
- If you have more than one child, try not to compare them. Kids who struggle with EF skill development need more support for longer periods than their peers, and that’s okay. Setting individualized expectations will help you all to retain sanity!
- Provide reasonable accommodations, modifications, and support to “even the playing field” for kids with learning differences (collaborate with your child’s teacher/school staff on these, as needed).
- Modify the environment at home, lending your “executive competence” as your child builds skills for him or herself.
- If your child is struggling to the point where he or she is at risk of developing secondary emotional, social, academic, and behavioral problems, seek help from a professional.
Knowledge and research related to Executive Functioning continues to expand. If you’re interested in further reading, check out these resources: Executive Functions: What They Are, How They Work, and Why They Evolved by Russell A. Barkley, Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents by Peg Dawson, Richard Guare, The Teenage Brain by Frances E. Jensen and Amy Ellis Nutt, and Late, Lost, and Unprepared: A Parents' Guide to Helping Children with Executive Functioning by Joyce Cooper-Kahn.
What We Can Do for You
At Meyers Learning Center, we have been teaching EF skills since our inception. It is one of the main reasons I’m passionate about what we do. In addition to academic content (the “what” of learning), we teach students the process for learning success (the “how”). Summer can be a useful time to practice EF skill building, through direct application of EF skills to a project, summer academic work, or a series of tasks and responsibilities that parents would like to see their children accomplish. Contact us today to learn about how we can build a tailored summer EF skill-building one-on-one experience for your child.
We also offer customized workshops based on the specific needs of families and schools we serve. Parents initiate tutoring workshops based on their children's needs by requesting a topic, format, and schedule to us. MLC develops and provides the workshop, complete with our top-notch educators, valuable content, and dynamic instruction. For more information please visit this link and submit your request online: http://meyerslearning.com/services/workshops or contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Pardon Our Mess While We Are Under Construction…
So, the next time your son forgets his gym clothes or your daughter leaves her binder at home, remind yourself: this is normal, it isn’t easy, and brain development takes time and endurance. Expect frustration, expect the need for “do-overs”, expect to get creative and laugh and cry as you persist forward through difficulty. And let me be the one to appreciate you for your magnanimity, since your kids likely will NOT…
“Thanks for your patience while we are under construction.”