Executive Functions - What Are They and Why Do They Matter?

Everything in life is a process - a dynamic interplay of events, each facilitating and interacting with the next… its taking parts and making it whole…taking strengths and bringing order from chaos.  As a whole our lives can find balance, joy, order, and  achievement, yet in isolation singular moments or events have less meaning.  It's the context of WHOLE that makes it what it is and gives us the resulting Life we are Living.   

This is what Executive Functions are about - workings in the brain collectively, interacting, and facilitating to create the outcome.  In this article, we find out what they are and why do they matter.

The Brain Model

The brain is made up of several components holding a big amount of nerve tissues responsible for many different processes in our bodies.  Our brains have many roles; some of which are processing sensory information, releasing the much-needed hormones and dopamine, regulating breathing, and the ups and downs of blood pressure. The brain is divided into hemispheres called the frontal, parietal, temporal, and occipital lobes. Primarily, the frontal lobe structure is responsible for cognitive processes. This is where executive functions come into play.

Many experts discuss and write on the topic of executive function skill…. In my training as an Executive Function Skills Coach I like the way Marydee Sklar lists them out.  Her model was adapted from the book (Dawson and Guare, Executive Function Skills in Children and Adolescents, 2010).  This gives a more clear insight on the intricate workings of the brain in relation to executive function skills.  These are all the parts that make up the “whole” of executive functioning.

  • Metacognition
  • Goal directed persistence
  • Flexibility
  • Sustaining Attention
  • Response Inhibition
  • Working Memory
  • Planning & Prioritizing
  • Time Management
  • Organization
  • Task Initiation
  • Controlling Emotions

Executive Functions: Looking into the Whole

Executive functions refer to a set of processes that are cognitive in nature involving mental skills that helps a person go through the stages of planning, monitoring, and executing goals whether short-term or long-term. This includes but is not limited to attention, organization, time management, problem-solving skills, memory retention, and inhibitions as to the fight, and flight response. 

Executive Functions: Keeping Up with Modern Life

It can be said that modern life is ever-changing and dynamic. Modern life is such that it demands considerable inputs and outputs, results, and thriving goals. For example, doing well in school or succeeding in the workplace is a whole new matter of setting the executive functions to work in its best condition. 

Moreover, signs of poor executive functions may result in struggles to keep up to the ways and means of modern times. Poor executive functions may also manifest as  impulsivity or inability to control emotions. Underdeveloped executive functions may result in overly emotional behaviors and inhibitions.  

On average the brain is not fully developed until mid twenties and for some even up to the age of 30.  Yet we are all expected to have mastery of these at a very young age.

Executive Functions: Linking to ADHD

Poor executive function in the frontal lobes is linked to ADHD. Surveys and studies show that poor executive functions are evident in ADHD children and adults.  

I for one have never worked with a client who has not had some weakness in their executive functioning skills… This looks different for everyone and is quite unique to the impact it has on your life.

Executive Functioning Vs. Executive Dysfunctioning

Executive Functioning is an all-too-encompassing word that tackles a range of learning and attentional control. Teachers, psychologists, counselors, and the like believe that limited capacity for thoughts, automatic reflections, and reflexive reactions are part of executive dysfunctioning. Similarly, children who experience executive dysfunction need proddings through clues, cues, and prompts to reinforce what is internally lacking in them.

It is said that stress and distress can reduce our ability to tap into our executive function skills.  Many feel “shut down” under stress and cannot work or study.   

Executive Functioning as the Director of the Orchestra of your “brain”

Executive functioning is the overall director of the brain. It is essential in planning details, organizing, making laid-out plans, monitoring, evening out well-laid plans, strategizing back-up plans, and shifting gears when needed. It is the conscious control of thoughts, emotions, and actions. Executive functioning is different from intelligence such that executive functioning is the translation of the said intelligence into action. It is like a well practiced symphony that plays beautifully when all the parts are in sync.

Metacognition is a key player in executive functioning ….Self Awareness…

Metacognition is “thinking about our thinking”  or has been defined as being present in the moment without judgement.

This involves being able to pause, reflect, become aware of what is happening in the moment and make choices accordingly.  

This also involves the ability to reflect on past events and determine different possible more appropriate courses of action.  

The ability or inability to hold back things in the  mind and pause to reflect.. 

Many people with ADHD struggle with different components of the executive function skills…. Many are labeled early on as lazy, or disobedient, or having no motivation, lack of values … etc… It is clear that this is a true struggle and dysfunction is not merely an issue of laziness, disobedience, or lack of values.

Clues, Cues, and Prompt - how to help a child with ADHD

Learning difficulties are neurologically wired in the brain but one thing is for sure, stress levels impede and barrier proper brain functioning.  Therefore, to punish a child and impose discipline does more harm.  

What is helpful is giving creative clues, cues, and prompts. A reward system or appreciation of work is great!  Research shows that the chemicals in the brain that occur with praise are more powerful than those created by criticism, even constructive criticism. It is well-established that overreactions and dysregulated emotional states may throw our executive functions “offline” or simply put into a state of not working. 

Have you ever noticed when you are getting super upset about something you suddenly cannot think straight?  Or you forget what you need to say to someone, then later when you are calm you think of a thousand great ways to say it!?  That is because the prefrontal cortex shuts down with stress and high emotions… it's what happens in the brain when you cannot access your executive functions.

Synopsis: Thoughts to Ponder

Executive functioning is a hot topic and a dynamic dilemma for many, especially those struggling with ADHD. It is an all-inclusive brain functioning model where a director needs to direct. 

The good news is that these fine skills can be developed and the “director of the orchestra” can learn to integrate each piece resulting in a beautiful symphony!  

I work with many people, adults, children, and  students on strengthening their executive function skills.  

If your child is experiencing executive dysfunctions, do reach out to me, find out how I can help.  Give them the support they need to succeed….. 

the ADHD brain + supports (executive function skills training) = SUCCESS

and then watch them flourish!  I run one on one sessions or group sessions to grow in executive function skills. 

If you are experiencing struggles related to time management, organization, prioritization, and productivity as an adult you may have some executive function weaknesses. Let down your guard and seek assistance from us. After all, you are not alone in your journey. Work with a coach to develop the specific areas interfering with your success in life and achieving your goals. There are various interventions a coach can help you get through it.

The journey may be difficult but despite our diversities and adversities, we are to work as one Let’s go hand in hand - together as one ….

Let us all be directors of this whole journey with our individual capabilities. Knowing our strengths and weaknesses is the first step… moving forward with our own personal growth.  I am a friend!  Journey with me….  WE ARE IN THIS TOGETHER!  

Love to all,

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