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Think, Stop, Plan, Do: Executive Function in Children

Executive function encompasses the mental processes enabling individuals to plan, initiate, and complete tasks. You can think of it as our brain's “management system.” Executive functions are categorized under three main skill-based areas: working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. When these skills are weak or impaired, individuals, especially children, may face significant challenges in effectively engaging in daily activities at home and in school. Understanding executive function skills in children is crucial for identifying difficulties, reinforcing weak areas, and adapting to the needs of those who think, learn, and behave differently. 


Children and Executive Function


Difficulties with executive function can manifest differently in every child, as it relates to their specific challenges and behavioral processes. Although executive function itself is not a specific disability or diagnosis, struggles with the key skills involved are common in children who are neurodivergent. Often, behaviors stemming from executive function skill deficits can be mistakenly viewed as intentional misbehaviors or lack of motivation, rather than an underlying impairment in these critical cognitive abilities. With increased recognition of the importance of executive function, let's discuss the main skills associated with it: working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control, and what deficits in these areas may look like in children.  



Young girl pausing to think as she ponders with her finger on her chin.


Working Memory: An Overview


Working memory in children is defined as the ability to keep information active in one's mind for a short time, involving the active process of holding onto information and recalling it when needed.  


What Does Working Memory Look Like in Children?


In children, the skill of working memory is essential as they complete tasks such as following instructions and repeating them back accurately, as well as processing, using, and remembering short-term information effectively. It is best to think about working memory as a child's “temporary thinking,” they are tracking information in real-time to carry out an action. Children who struggle with working memory may appear to be inattentive, as they can get lost in executing directions unless they have sufficient time or support to think and break down tasks. They may need assistance staying organized mentally to see tasks through to completion.  


Flexible Thinking: An Overview 


Flexible thinking in children, commonly referred to as cognitive flexibility, is the ability to adapt one's thinking and behavior to new or changing situations and demands.  


What Does Flexible Thinking Look Like in Children? 


In children, cognitive flexibility enables them to effectively adapt their mindsets and behaviors in response to changing situational demands. Children who excel in cognitive flexibility demonstrate the capacity to transition smoothly between tasks and change of routine, modify behavior for the environment (classroom vs. playground), and adjust their approach to problem-solving when initial attempts are unsuccessful. In contrast, children who struggle with cognitive flexibility may become rigidly stuck in routines or single mindsets, have trouble multi-tasking, and struggle to adapt their behaviors appropriately across different situations. They may also demonstrate repetitive patterns of thinking and behaving despite changing circumstances. 


Self-Control: An Overview 


Self-control in children, commonly referred to as inhibitory control, is the ability to control urges or impulses while expressing cognitive, emotional, or behavioral responses.  


What Does Self-Control Look Like in Children?   


In children, the skill of self-control enables them to regulate and execute appropriate responses to various stimuli. Effectively employing this skill involves the ability to suppress a dominant response, such as interrupting, when it is not appropriate according to the situation's rules. This capability is evident in various contexts, including school, home, and social situations. Children who excel in self-control demonstrate the capacity to pause and consider how their actions or responses affect others or their surroundings before acting impulsively. In contrast, children who struggle with inhibitory control may act impulsively without pausing to consider the consequences of their actions on others or their environment. 


Conclusion


Executive function skills - working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control - are critical for children to effectively manage thoughts, actions, and emotions successfully in their daily lives at home and school. Weaknesses in these areas can manifest as difficulties following instructions, struggling with transitions, or changing routines, acting impulsively, disorganization, and inattentiveness. By understanding each child's strengths and challenges within executive function, parents and educators can better support skill development with early intervention through activities, accommodations, and therapies. Nurturing executive functions helps children build the foundational cognitive skills necessary for success with goal-directed activities, emotional regulation, and adaptive problem-solving as they grow. Recognizing issues with executive function allows us to adapt how we guide children rather than mislabeling skill deficits as behavioral problems.  

 


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