What are Executive Functioning Skills?

Course excerpt from Executive Functioning: Teaching Children Organizational Skills

Executive Functioning SkillsParents are often confused when they are told that their child has deficits in his “Executive Functions.” Those seem like big words to describe the frustrations of having a child who seems more disorganized than other children; the kid who often comes to school late and unprepared and always seems to be losing his homework, shoes, or games.

Executive functions are the self-regulating skills that we use every day in order to get any task done, from getting dressed and eating breakfast to getting a backpack packed and choosing which friend to play with. They help us plan, organize, make decisions, shift between situations or thoughts, control our emotions and impulsivity, and learn from past mistakes.

Dawson and Guare (2010) describe executive functioning skills as follows:

“Human beings have a built-in capacity to meet challenges and accomplish goals through the use of high-level cognitive functions called executive skills. These are the skills that help us to decide what activities or tasks we will pay attention to and which ones we will choose to do. Executive skills allow us to organize our behavior over time and override immediate demands in favor of longer-term goals. Through the use of these skills we can plan and organize activities, sustain attention, and persist to complete a task. Executive skills enable us to manage our emotions and our thoughts in order to work more efficiently and effectively. Simply stated, these skills help us to regulate our behavior” (p.1).

Executive functioning difficulties cause children and teens to struggle with many academic learning tasks. According to Howland (2010), executive functioning skills predict academic success more effectively than tests of academic achievement or cognitive ability. Children with poor executive functioning skills are at high risk for dropping out of school, as well as for social and behavioral problems (Lindsay & Dockrell, 2012). They often have compromised listening skills and difficulties following directions, which can compromise familial relationships and academic and social functioning.

Executive functioning difficulty is not necessarily considered a disability, yet it is a weakness in a key set of mental skills that helps connect past experience with present action. People use them to perform activities such as planning, organizing, strategizing, paying attention to and remembering details, and managing time and space.

We use the executive functions in our brains to:

  • Make plans
  • Keep track of time and finish work punctually
  • Multitask and keep track of more than one thing simultaneously
  • Meaningfully include past knowledge in discussions
  • Evaluate ideas and reflect on our work
  • Change our minds and make mid-course corrections while thinking, reading and writing
  • Ask for help or seek more information when needed
  • Engage in group dynamics
  • Wait our turn to speak
  • Apply previously learned information to solve problems
  • Analyze ideas

Deficits in this area can affect any task, from completing a homework assignment or getting dressed in the morning to doing laundry or grocery shopping.

Another way to understand executive functioning difficulties is to see how process works. Here is an example, broken down into six steps (Bhandari, 2015):

  1. Analyze a task to figure out what needs to be done
  2. Plan how to handle the task
  3. Break down the plan into a series of steps
  4. Figure out how much time is needed to carry out the plan, and set aside the time
  5. Make adjustments as needed
  6. Finish the task in the time allotted

If executive functioning is working well, the brain may go through these steps in a matter of seconds. If a child has weak executive skills, however, performing even a simple task can be challenging.

According to Howland (2010), educators have increasingly and appropriately focused on the development of executive functioning skills throughout middle school and high school. However, these skills don’t suddenly emerge in adolescence; the foundation is laid in early childhood and builds throughout the school years. We simply cannot afford to wait until middle school to begin to work on executive control.

Howland (2010) explains that given the right experiences, children can improve executive functioning skills from a young age. We need a developmentally appropriate curriculum that directly teaches executive functioning skills from the start of school, treating these processes as skills to be developed, rather than problem behaviors that need to be managed.

Executive functioning skills are also intricately linked to language development. Therefore, according to Romski et al. (2011) and Watts-Pappas and McLeod (2009), SLPs and other therapists are in a unique position to give parents the skills they need in order to help their children develop executive functioning skills.

Executive Functioning: Teaching Children Organizational SkillsExecutive Functioning: Teaching Children Organizational Skills is a 4-hour online continuing education (CE/CEU) course that will enumerate and illustrate multiple strategies and tools for helping children overcome executive functioning deficits and improve their self-esteem and organizational abilities. Executive functioning skills represent a key set of mental assets that help connect past experience with present action. They are fundamental to performing activities such as planning, organizing, strategizing, paying attention to and remembering details, and managing time and space. Conversely, executive functioning deficits can significantly disrupt an individual’s ability to perform even simple tasks effectively. Although children with executive functioning difficulties may be at a disadvantage at home and at school, adults can employ many different strategies to help them succeed. Included are techniques for planning and prioritizing, managing emotions, improving communication, developing stress tolerance, building time management skills, increasing sustained attention, and boosting working memory. Course #40-42 | 2017 | 76 pages | 25 posttest questions

This online course provides instant access to the course materials (PDF download) and CE test. After enrolling, click on My Account and scroll down to My Active Courses. From here you’ll see links to download/print the course materials and take the CE test (you can print the test to mark your answers on it while reading the course document). Successful completion of the online CE test (80% required to pass, 3 chances to take) and course evaluation are required to earn a certificate of completion.

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