Have you ever come across a child who, despite their typical or advanced intelligence, is exceptionally disorganized or forgetful and can’t seem to plan ahead?
Such children may be experiencing executive functioning difficulties. Executive function involves a number of brain regions, which together are called the executive function network. This network starts to develop during the second year of life, undergoes its most rapid development between the ages of 3 and 7, and continues to develop at a moderate rate until reaching full maturity in adolescence. Undeveloped executive functions lead to struggles at school.
Children with executive functioning difficulties may have trouble listening efficiently and using short-term and long-term memory. They sometimes struggle to distinguish between important and non-important information, organize and plan their schoolwork, and keep track of their things. For children contending with executive functioning difficulties, specialized assistance can enable them to learn and practice new strategies that help them listen and hold on to what is said in the classroom, organize their thoughts, and manage their time.
Some people use the image of an orchestra conductor to understand the concept of executive functioning. Orchestra conductors do not play instruments themselves, but coordinate and direct the strings, the horns, and the woodwinds. This image conveys the complex coordination that occurs even during simple tasks between our senses, memory, ideas, and use of feedback.
Executive functioning involves:
- Finding the right balance between speed and accuracy on a task within the amount of time available.
- Self-monitoring to correct oneself.
- Directing and focusing attention to screen out distractions.
- Sustaining attention during a boring task.
A mountaintop view analogy is also helpful in understanding executive functioning. If you are at the top of a mountain, you can see the panorama of the landscape. If you are standing at the bottom, you can only see the details of leaves and trees. Executive functioning allows the viewer to shift between the “big picture” view from the mountaintop and the detailed view from the bottom of the mountain. This aspect of executive functioning enables the following:
– Being able to change strategies when new rules or demands occur.
– Managing the details of a project while maintaining the overall goal or concept.
Writing serves as a real-world example of the important role of executive functioning. In writing, one must draw upon memory, move a hand to form letters, and continuously revise and reshape thoughts to convey meaning. Most of what children are asked to do in schoolplaces a heavy load on their executive functioning. For children experiencing difficulties with attention, organization, or self-regulation of impulsive behaviors, the sooner they learn new strategies to help themselves, the happier they will be and the greater their attainment will be.
Executive functioning abilities often reach full maturity during early adulthood. That means that some children will struggle with executive functioning, despite a typical overall intelligence level. These are usually the children we think of as disorganized and unprepared, yet able in almost every other way. For these children, specialized support is especially important, as assessment can yield specific strategies that can truly have an impact on their academic life and achievement levels.