What is Executive Functioning?

Executive functioning is a set of processes our brain uses to allow us to get things done. Think of executive functioning like a coach in a sports game! The coach gathers information presented to him during the game (e.g., the current score, the MVP, plays that have worked etc…) and uses it to create a game plan (working memory). He realizes when his original plan is not working and adjusts accordingly to the present situation (flexible thinking).  In a game, even though the crowd may be against his team or his team is losing, he is able to ignore distractions, manage his emotions and help his team make appropriate choices (self-control). Each coach uses different strategies to ultimately help his/her players play their best game.

Essentially, executive functioning is our own coach in our own brains. Our executive functions help us to organize, plan, attend, manage thoughts, regulate emotions, solve conflicts and inhibit impulses so that we can best complete everyday tasks.

What are the three fundamental processes that make up executive functioning?

  • Working memory: ability to hold on to information and use it (e.g. answering questions after a listening to a story, hearing a phone number and then dialing it)
  • Flexible thinking: ability to think about things in more than one way (e.g., problem solving, understanding that sometimes things do not go according to plan)
  • Self-control: ability to regulate emotions, inhibit impulses and ignore distractions (e.g., feeling frustrated and not throwing a tantrum, listening to a teacher while others are talking)

These fundamental processes of working memory, flexible thinking and self-control all work together to help us:

  • organize
  • plan
  • attend
  • manage thoughts
  • regulate emotions
  • analyze information
  • solve conflicts
  • inhibit impulses

Who experiences difficulties with executive functioning?

Children with language disorders may exhibit difficulties with executive functioning. Information is often presented to children through the means of language. As language becomes more complex (e.g., increase in vocabulary demands, sentence structure expectations, amount of information) the capacity of a child to recall and organize this information (use executive functioning) decreases because their ability to understand language is weak.

Children with sensory processing deficits may exhibit difficulties with executive functioning. Children who have difficulty analyzing and processing information from their environment (e.g., noises, visual distractions etc..), will exhibit deficits in changing or planning their behaviours accordingly (use executive functioning) when trying to process sensory information.

Children with ADHD, a condition that makes it difficult to concentrate, use working memory, organize information or manage oneself, exhibit difficulties with executive functioning.

What are some strategies I can use to help my child with executive functioning?

Tips for working memory:

  • Help your child organize information and group related information together
  • Use common vocabulary and simple sentences to reduce memory load
  • Help your child remember lengthy piece of information by introducing fun pneumonics
  • Play memory, matching games
  • When your child is given a direction, help them visualize what is being asked (e.g., draw expectations, make a check list etc…).

Tips for flexible thinking:

  • Use humor and tell jokes
  • Make up new rules to a familiar game
  • Play with legos or blocks and try to build new designs with the same legos or blocks

Tips for self-control:

  • Model and role-play appropriate social behavior like waiting, managing emotions, turn taking, conversations etc…
  • Help your child identify emotions
  • Help your child understand perspective and what others may be thinking

If you notice your child is having difficulty with executive functioning, please contact Butterfly Therapy today at (905) 206-0300 and our therapists can help! Our Speech-Language Pathologists and Occupational Therapists can help coach your child in executive functioning. Our therapists specialize in working with children to give them the tools they will need to be successful at home and in school.