Executive Function: Refers to our abilities to be able to focus, hold, and work with information, filter distractions, and switch direction as needed.
Executive Function is like having an air traffic control system in your head. Picture yourself at a busy airport working to manage the arrivals and departures of dozens of planes on multiple runways. In our brain, this air traffic control mechanism is called executive function — it’s a group of skills that helps us to focus on multiple streams of information at the same time, and which allow us to revise our plans as necessary.Modified from the Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University
Here’s a short video that provides a wonderful window into the concept of Executive Function:
For us to be effective — to be able to adapt to change, cope under numerous demands, and interact successfully with others — we need to be able to balance this complex reality, and adjust as necessary when the circumstances require us to do so.
And what we’ve discovered about this ability is that it is not innate. These are skills that need to be learned — either through our own natural growth or, for some, they are skills that may need to be explicitly taught.
What can it look like if your Executive Function is not ‘up to par’? Children — and for that matter ALL of us — who are lagging in Executive Function capacities are often viewed as having maladaptive behavior. Things like:
- not paying attention;
- being unable to take turns;
- deliberately acting out;
- constantly interrupting others;
- being quick to anger.
People who have lagging skills in one or more Executive Functions can have an inability to adjust to change or process things in a way that results in a productive response. The ‘acting out’ may appear as childish, stubborn or immature. What may be at the root of the problem is a lack of adequate Executive Function. But, the good news is that it can be taught.
EXECUTIVE FUNCTION AT ITS CORE
Although there are a number of Executive Functions, let me focus on three main skills:
- Remembering what we were doing before we were interrupted, and then later, continuing on with the task at hand, or modifying our pathway to the new expectation of the task.
- Having patience and the ability to control ourselves when our needs are not met immediately.
- In other words, we need to be able to share our space and time with others.
- Adjusting what we are doing if conditions alter during the activity that may warrant a change in our own actions.
BUILDING INTERNAL CAPACITY
We ALL play a role in building Executive Function skills in our students and each other. The challenge for educators and parents is to be able to recognize lagging skills and use our understanding to help bridge those gaps. Like any skill, practice builds competence. And when we become more proficient in these skills we can show a corresponding increase in some of our more important life competencies:
- Playing well with others;
- Having stronger personal relationships;
- Having stable careers and professional relationships;
- Adjusting better to life’s complexities;
- Being generally happier.
Once we understand that Executive Function is a foundational piece of learning, belonging, and contributing we can begin to shift our lens from ‘behaviour’ to the development of skills that are key to success.
There is so much to explore with EF, that I know it will make it back to my blog space again … and maybe more than once. There’s some great research on how it affects academic achievement.
In the interim, here are a couple of GREAT resources that are worth the read if you’re looking for more information:
“Executive Function Isn’t What You Think It Is (Maybe), July 2020”.Andrew Watson, Learning and the Brain (July 9, 2020)
TEDx video: How your brain’s executive function works — and how to improve it |Sabine Doebel (December 2018)