The use of the phrase executive functions has grown in the mainstream over the last twenty years. However, it has been used by scientists for much longer. But many people are not sure exactly what it means. So let’s first start with a basic definition…
Executive function skills are things we do to ourselves to determine our actions and pursue our goals. Our executive functions are responsible for directing the use of other cognitive functions such as reasoning, language, and visualization. In other words, they help us execute or get stuff done.
When our executive function skills work well, our actions match the outcome we would like to achieve and/or the outcome that is expected of us. We are able to organize our thoughts and activities, prioritize tasks, manage our time efficiently, and make good decisions.
When executive function skills are NOT working well, we misplace our materials, prioritize the wrong things, become overwhelmed with tasks, and do not manage our time effectively.
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Executive Function Models
There are several models for thinking about the skills that are considered executive functions. The most popular models were created by Dr. George McCloskey and by Dr. Russell Barkley. Dr. Peg Dawson of the Smart, but Scattered line of books has also started to develop her own model.
Dr. McCloskey has focused most of his work on children and young adults in academic settings. His model has six major skill areas with 38 sub-skills. While it can be helpful to drill down into different areas and work on sub-skills, it is a complicated model if you are just learning about executive function skills.
Dr. Barkley’s model of executive function has seven areas organized in order of development. The best description of his model is found in his book Taking Charge of Adult ADHD (2022) and is a great place to start if you want to learn more about executive functions. I would recommend this book even to parents who want to learn more about executive function skills to help their children.
Dr. Dawson’s Smart but Scattered books have been helping parents for years develop their children’s executive function skills. But she just recently started to organize these skills into her own executive function model to provide a framework for thinking about how they develop. You can hear more about her model in this podcast interview, Executive Skills Master Class. She divides the executive function skills into six foundational skills and five advanced skills.
The goal of this article is to summarize executive function development in a way that is easy for parents to understand so that they can start to help their children develop these skills. The summary below is based mostly on Dr. Barkely’s model, but is informed by both Dr. McCloskey’s and Dr. Dawson’s models.
The Neurodevelopment of Executive Functions
Before we jump into the development of the skills themselves, let’s take a moment to look at what parts of the brain control these functions. Executive function skills develop in the Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC), which is part of the frontal lobe. However, they also involve connections between the PFC and other areas of the brain like the basal ganglia, amygdala, limbic system and cerebellum. If your eyes just glazed over reading this paragraph, don’t worry…you don’t need to know neuroanatomy to learn more about executive function skills! 🙂 But this information is helpful when we are dealing with a brain injury or looking at some of the therapy techniques that can be used to help individuals.
Before a child starts to develop their executive function skills, their sensori-motor skills develop. Infants start to attend to their surroundings. They begin to take in sensory information through all of their senses. As they get older, they start to make motor responses based on the sensory information they are taking in. For example, if something looks interesting, a baby reaches out to touch it and sees what happens. Then they take in that new sensory information and repeat the motor response or adjust it in some way.
Over the first two years of life and beyond, children continue to take in sensory information, learn how to make sense of it, and create different motor responses. This leads to enormous gains in motor and speech development in the first few years of life.
At age two, once a lot of sensori-motor development has occured, the first executive function skill in Barkley’s model starts to develop…self-awareness. This is where children turn all that sensory exploration and motor responses in on themselves. They start to develop a sense of who they are as an individual, what they feel, and what is happening to them. And as many parents know, two-year-olds often start to test the environment and people around them to make better sense of who they are within their enviroment and family systems and the impact they can have on them. This self-awareness continues to develop for many years.
As children are testing the world around them, they start to develop inhibition…the ability to STOP and think before they act. In the beginning, this will look like pulling their hand back from a hot stove. Eventually, inhibition will keep them from taking toys from other children or that toy from the toy store that hasn’t been paid for. As we get older, we use this skill to tune out distractions so that we can complete a task. And eventually, we use this ability to solve problems…to stop and think so we can choose the best course of action.
3. Non-Verbal Working Memory
The third skill to develop, beginning shortly after the first two develop, is non-verbal working memory. Working memory is the ability to hold information in your mind so that you can use it. Non-verbal working memory allows you to hold information from all of your senses…images, tastes, smells, sounds, touches, etc. This allows us to ‘resense’ past events. This recalling of the past is important, because it can help us make better decisions about the present and future. Remembering what actions brought about desired responses in the past and which didn’t then directs our future actions.
Visual imagery makes up the vast majority of the information we hold in our non-verbal working memory since vision is such an important sense for humans. This visual imagery then helps us envision a future that we want, imitate those around us, forsee the consequences of our actions, and defer immediate gratification for a reward further down the road. Non-verbal working memory also allows us to sense the passage of time, which helps us manage our time and complete tasks.
4. Verbal Working Memory
Next, verbal working memory develops, which is essentially the ability to talk to oneself. First children do this out loud and then around ages 7-9 this becomes an internal dialogue. This self-talk allows us to describe a situation and think about it further through the use of language. Our verbal working memory helps us problem solve, formulate rules and plans for ourselves, follow rules we are given, and comprehend what we read and hear. We can access it by asking ourselves good questions about the past and use it to write down plans for the future.
The development of both of these types of working memory strengthen the first two skills…self-awareness and inhibition. They also are important to the development of the next three.
5. Self-Regulation of Emotion
Once we develop our self-awareness, our ability to inhibit, and our working memory to look back at the past and to talk to ourselves, we can regulate our emotions. Emotions communicate our feelings to others, but they also direct our actions OR keep us from acting. If we do not have much control over our emotions, we do not have much control over what we do. By resensing past experiences and talking to ourself, we can make sense of what we are feeling and determine what we should do about it. We can soothe ourselves, shift to an alternative emotion, and choose how to react to a situation or person.
The development of the previous five executive function skills allows us to start to motivate ourselves to engage in a task when there are not obvious or immediate external rewards to push us to do something. Visual images of a future reward and self-talk keeps us going. Self-motivation also allows us to persist at a task that might be hard or boring until we have completed it.
7. Planning and Problem Solving
Once we can hold images and words in our mind well, we can manipulate them into new arrangements or sequences to see what we might create. This is imagination. Imagination helps us consider all the options when planning or responding to a problem. It allows us to see which choice is the best one in a situation and determine the sequence of actions to reach our goal. This last executive function begins development during imaginery play for children, but does not fully develop until about age 30.
If you have been reading this article, it is likely you are wondering if your child’s executive function skills have been developing as they should. Hopefully, you had some light bulb moments while reading that have helped you see why your child may be struggling. I will address these areas in more detail in the future, including what it looks like for children who are delayed in developing these skills as well as how to help them.
In the mean time, I would like to leave you with two thoughts…
One, as I was summarizing these skills my brain kept thinking: we need to make sure children are having LOTS of sensori-motor and imaginative play! I know many of us have been thinking this for a long time, but looking at the development of executive function skills really helps us see how this play is so critical to our functioning as adults. And unfortunately this type of play has been decreasing over the last several years.
Two, when we are helping children who are weak in any of these areas, we want to use a three-prong approach.
- Adapt the environment to provide struggling children and young adults with more external structure such as breaking tasks up into parts and providing one part at a time.
- Provide children and young adults with tools they can use to support their weaker skills such as graphic organizers and checklists.
- Teach children and young adults the skills they are missing within the context that they need them. And then have them practice using the skills to strengthen them.
I would also love to hear your thoughts…How are your people struggling with executive function skills? Comment below or send us a message.