What is Executive Function?
A Guide for Parents.
Maybe a teacher has suggested that your child could benefit from better “executive function skills” or maybe you’ve heard other parents mention the term. “Executive function” has become an education buzzword – and for good reason. But, unless you’re a psychologist, you might be wondering what the term really means and why it matters for your student.
What is Executive Function?
Executive function expert Seth Perler says that executive function is all about “getting stuff done.” And he’s right, because executive function is an umbrella term for all the skills we need to complete important tasks in our lives. These skills include organization, prioritization, planning, time management, flexibility, starting tasks, maintaining attention to those tasks, and sticking with them until they’re complete.
Imagine trying to do homework, chores, prepare your taxes, get through a list of thank you notes, or complete any other task – big or small – without these skills. When you think of it this way, it’s easy to understand why executive function has become such a hot topic and why kids who lack EF skills may be struggling at school and at home.
We sometimes describe executive function as the “hidden curriculum.” Schools are designed to teach history, math, and science, but many are not prepared to teach organizational skills. If a student understands algebra but can’t remember to do the algebra homework, their grade won’t reflect what they know. In this way, lagging EF skills can be the reason why a bright student struggles in school and maybe even at home as well.
How Do I Know if My Student Has Executive Function Skill Deficits?
As a parent, how would you know if your child needs help with EF skills? On the surface, students who struggle in this area may appear “lazy” or “unmotivated.” But that’s usually a sign that something else is going on.
Here is a list of some core EF skills. Ask yourself how your middle or high school student is doing with each of these skills. If your student is struggling with more than one of these skills, they might benefit from some additional EF support.
- Organization – the ability create and maintain systems and keep track of information or materials
- Planning/Prioritization – the ability to create a roadmap to reach a goal or complete a task, and make decisions on what is important to focus on versus not
- Sustained Attention – the capacity to keep paying attention to a situation or task in spite of distractions, fatigue or boredom
- Task Initiation – the ability to begin projects without undue procrastination
- Cognitive Flexibility/Shifting – the ability to revise plans in the face of obstacles, setbacks, new information, or mistakes
- Time management – the capacity to estimate how much time it takes to complete a task and how allocate one’s time to stay in within time limits and meet deadlines
- Emotional Regulation – the ability to manage emotions to achieve goals, complete tasks, or control and direct behavior
- Impulse Control – the capacity to think before you act, and evaluate a situation and how your behavior will impact it
How Do I Help My Student Build Better Executive Function Skills
There are lots of ways parents can help their students improve their EF skills. With our students, we often like to start by focusing on goal-setting and self-evaluation.
Students can benefit from reflecting on what their goals are and then setting specific goals for the week, month, or semester. Then it helps to break those goals down even further. Work with your student to help them identify the steps they’ll need to take to reach their goal.
For example, your student might say that their goal for the semester is to pass a class they are currently in danger of failing. The steps required to reach that goal might include turning in weekly assignments on time completing the end of semester research paper.
When you and your student work through this process together, it helps to ask which steps feel doable and which don’t. Does that research paper feel daunting? If so, what are the specific skills or strategies your student might need to learn in order to make the research paper more doable? Maybe they need help learning to outline a paper, or maybe they need help with online and library research skills.
Sometimes parents are surprised to learn that their student doesn’t know how to do a specific skill. It’s often because the student never learned that skill or never had someone teach it to them directly. But it’s never too late to learn.
Once your student has goals and a plan, you can support them to self-evaluate as they work through the plan. Perhaps turning in the weekly assignment on time is still difficult. This is an opportunity to ask them what’s working and what’s not so they can identify changes they need to make to get closer to their goals.
Frequent self-evaluation and adjustment serve two purposes. In the short term, they help your student stay on track. In the long term, they help them develop important self-monitoring and cognitive flexibility skills for better overall executive functioning.
Students who build strong executive skills will experience greater success in a variety of contexts throughout their lives. It won’t happen overnight but progress is possible. Start small with a specific goal and a set of concrete steps to reach that goal. Map out the plan together, be flexible when adjustments are needed, and celebrate every small success along the way.