Developing Executive Functioning Skills in Individuals with Challenges

5 Types of Executive Functioning Skills

A person with executive functioning challenges may have difficulty planning, organizing, following directions and self-regulating. They may also have trouble with memory, emotional control and impulsivity.

No one is born with these skills – they develop over time through relationships with responsive caregivers, play and practice. The cluster of executive functions develops most rapidly in early childhood, then again during adolescence and adulthood.

1. Self-Regulation

Self-regulation is the cognitive and behavioural component of executive functioning skills that help us stay on track, control our emotions and think before we act. Also referred to as grit, soft skills and self-control, it involves the abilities to think strategically, regulate emotions, monitor oneself and inhibit responses when appropriate.

It takes time and practice to learn self-regulation. It typically develops most rapidly between ages 3-5, with another spike in development during preteen and teenage years.

Teachers can help children build their self-regulation skills by using visual supports, breaking tasks down into steps and using prompts and cues.

2. Focus

Focus is the ability to stay on task and not get distracted by other activities or noise. Students with disabilities often need extra help developing their focus skills through visual supports, breaking large tasks into smaller steps, and using prompts and cues.

Having trouble with these executive function skills doesn’t necessarily mean you have ADHD, but it is common in kids with learning challenges. Strategies that bolster these skills, like making checklists for big assignments and practicing self-control, can make it easier to do homework and follow through on school-related responsibilities.

3. Planning

Plans give us the ability to prioritize tasks, follow directions and stay focused despite distractions. This skill is facilitated by an area of the brain called the frontal lobe.

Kids with strong executive function skills can develop a sense of control over their lives, which helps them succeed in school and later become responsible workers and parents. Research suggests that the early building of these skills contributes to children’s literacy and math achievement, even in kindergarten.

Kids who struggle with executive function often have trouble following directions and keeping their attention on tasks. Helping them to break assignments into smaller steps and make checklists can be helpful.

4. Memory

Memory is the ability to recall and use information that you’ve stored in your brain. It’s also a key part of your ability to think critically and problem-solve.

Working memory is the memory you use for what you’re doing now – like taking notes or having a conversation. It’s also the brain skill that lets you shift thinking from one topic to another.

Building kids’ executive function skills helps them grow into adults who can juggle work, school and other life commitments. Trouble with executive function skills is common in people who have learning challenges, including ADHD.

5. Decision-Making

Every day we make decisions from trivial choices like what to wear to more important ones such as how to handle a difficult situation. To be effective, decision-making must include a process that starts at a stage and has specific steps and ends with a clear resolution.

Kids with ADHD often have trouble with this skill, so it’s essential to teach them how to break down tasks into smaller pieces and create checklists for themselves. This will help them stay focused, organize their work and learn from past mistakes.

6. Inhibitory Control

Inhibitory control, the ability to inhibit prepotent responses and shift them to new stimulus-reward contingencies in the same perceptual dimension, is one of the most demanding of the executive functioning skills. Older adults’ inhibitory control deficits on discrimination reversal tasks correlate with the severity of their dementia (Peltsch et al. 2011).

Building children’s executive functioning skills is a key part of helping them become good students, classroom citizens and friends. Strong executive function also helps them develop into adults capable of juggling multiple commitments such as parenting, work and civic involvement.

7. Social Skills

Social skills are the ability to interact and build relationships with others. This can include everything from communicating clearly, to building trust and respect with others. Social skills are an important part of many jobs, including customer service, collaborating on projects and being able to work well in a team.

Students with disabilities often have trouble learning executive functioning skills. They may need extra support to help them get organized and learn how to focus their attention. Strategies such as visual supports, breaking tasks into smaller steps and using prompts and cues can be helpful.

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