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Executive What? 5 Things You Should Know About Executive Functioning

More and more students are being diagnosed with, or suffering from, challenges with Executive Functioning.  These challenges have a direct impact on a young person’s capacity for successfully navigating the world around them, and struggles can impede both academic and social development, growth, and success.  Additionally, struggles with Executive Functioning can compound other diagnoses, such as Anxiety, Depression, or Addiction,  further complicating treatment and recovery.  Understanding the elements of Executive Functioning can help you understand your child’s struggles, as well as ways in which you can help.


Look up “Executive Functioning” on your search engine of choice, and here’s what pops out:

1. Definition: Executive Function

(also known as cognitive control and supervisory attentional system) is an umbrella term for the management (regulation, control) of cognitive processes, including working memory, reasoning, task flexibility, and problem solving as well as planning and execution.


2. Translation:

Executive Functioning is the ability to hold, process, plan, and execute thoughts and tasks in a logical, linear, and yet creatively flexible manner.  Executive Functions are pretty amazing, actually.  Your phone (aka “pocket computer”) has superior Executive Functioning.  It has split-second controls and superior supervisory attention.  It can manage your requests, process the information, carry the “thought process” and hold onto your request until it achieves the intended goal, and it can even swap cleanly between calls to grandma, your latest Facebook post, Yelp reviews for local and authentic Thai food, and then take a picture of the beautifully presented Geng Keaw Wan Gai (Green Curry Chicken).  Our phones have much better Executive Functioning than most of us.   


3. Challenges for Teens and Young Adults

Teens and young adults who struggle with Executive Functioning deficits have a hard time with some, many, or all of these components.  Planning and executing multi-step processes are often especially difficult.  Doing the cognitive gymnastics of predicting, and impacting, the future is complex.  Not in a crystal-ball, stock-market and horse-race winners sort of way, but in the way in which we imagine intended results, and then wind it backwards, evaluating the necessary intermediary steps, and then implement these steps forwards, towards our goal.  Strategizing for the future (and then making that future a reality) is hard work.

For instance, if I want to have dinner on the table at 7:30, then I need to get the chicken in the oven by 6:30, and that means that I should take it out of the freezer the night before.  Hammering on frozen chicken at 6:45 is a likely result of an Executive Function challenge, but that’s a relatively private and inconsequential example.  Besides cooking a palatable dinner, teens and young adults often struggle with school work, social connections, job performance, and even emotional dysregulation as the result of Executive Function deficits.


4.  Flexibility Matters

These skills are challenged when reading for content, when doing multi-step math problems, when trying to collate and correlate multiple data streams, and when just planning what needs to go into a backpack for a successful day at school (homework for 2nd and 4th period, snack, lunch, cell phone, eyeglasses, charger, gym clothes, and the signed permission slip – easy, right!?).  “Set shifting” (the ability to discard a set plan and quickly redesign for different circumstances) is difficult for those with Executive Function challenges, and it’s not uncommon to see outbursts, tantrums, or avoidance techniques when the capacity to “change gears on the fly” is stressed.  Not all acting out is due to a “bad attitude” – it may just be a reaction to struggles in “shifting” or an avoidance technique utilized to mask perceived inadequacies as the result of Executive Function challenges.


5.  Help is Available

Repetition, pre-processing upcoming “set shifts”, practice, graphic organizers, phone reminders, calendars, sticky notes, mindfulness training, routine, and an intentional coaching model where clients intentionally set goals and work through the steps (backwards) to create checkpoints along the path to completion are all strategies for helping those with Executive Function challenges.  Many residential programs integrate a variety of these supports and interventions, providing explicit instruction  in the area of Executive Functioning, to help students learn to manage their mind, their belongings, their environment, and their relationships.  Helping students understand their own thought processes, including recognizing, naming, and facing their challenges with Executive Functioning, can help them learn to develop internalized growth in Executive Functioning, as well as and implement effective scaffolding (“academic accommodations”) and external supports to prop up challenged areas.  

Whether you use Siri or Cortana (on your smartphone), you’re already carrying around your own Executive Functioning Personal Assistant, and today’s world moves fast enough to almost require this level of assistance.  Imagine where you’d be without them, and how frustrating, embarrassing, and dys-regulating losing your phone, and assistant, could be!  For young people experiencing challenges with Executive Functioning, every task, interaction, project, and goal is this kind of minefield of potential challenges, pitfalls, and explosions – great and small.  Sometimes the challenge (and read “challenge” here as an overwhelming intimidation, a persistent pressure that provokes incompetence) is simply too great, and it’s easier to not start a task than to get lost and embarrassed and potentially ridiculed in the middle of it.  Helping your teen or young adult to recognize and adapt to their Executive Function challenges can be an incredibly empowering step forward in them regaining control of their lives.  



About the Author

headshot of Jake WeldJake Weld holds a masters degree in education and has over twenty years of experience in traditional, LD, and therapeutic schools, adolescent and young adult programs, and conventional, wilderness, and residential settings. He has served as the Executive Director of a therapeutic boarding school, the Assistant Headmaster of a specialized LD boarding school, and as the Academic and Program Director of various schools and programs.  He is currently the Director of Admissions and Business Development for Mansfield Hall, a specialized college support program in Burlington, VT, and Madison, WI.