What is Executive Functioning?
Executive functioning is a set of skills that help us manage time, tasks, and emotions as we move through daily life. Students are often strong in some areas, but weak in others — every child is unique in their development. These skills include:
- Response inhibition. The capacity to think before you act.
- Working memory. The ability to hold information in memory while performing complex tasks.
- Emotional control. The ability to manage emotions in order to achieve goals.
- Sustained attention. The capacity to maintain attention to a situation or task in spite of distractions, fatigue or boredom.
- Task initiation. The ability to begin projects without undue procrastination in an efficient, timely fashion.
- Planning prioritization. The ability to create a roadmap to reach a goal or complete a task.
- Organization. The ability to create and maintain systems to keep track of information and materials.
- Time management. The capacity to estimate how much time one has, how to allocate it and stay within deadlines.
- Meta-cognition. The ability to stand back and take a birds-eye view of yourself or a situation. This also includes self-evaluation and reflection skills.
Building Task-Oriented Skills: Clean Your Room
Executive functioning skills are managed by the frontal lobe of the brain. As young brains develop, an adult must act as a “surrogate” frontal lobe to directly help students until they learn proficiency. The adult should provide a greater degree of support initially and taper it when appropriate. The task “clean your room” may be too broad for a child or teen to tackle independently at first. Dr. Persampiere suggests an intervention model that can be used in a variety of task-oriented situations.
- Develop a plan with a specific set of directions. Use verbal cues to communicate those directions step by step.
- Develop a way to directly monitor performance and how to determine that the task is complete.
- Provide encouragement and feedback as your child successfully works through the steps.
- Problem-solve with your child when something doesn’t work. Ask questions like “This step doesn’t seem to be working. How can we come up with a better way to do it?”.
Provide the same information without directly monitoring your child through a checklist, an audio recording or picture cues. Step 3.
Begin to transfer responsibility to the child, ask “What do you need to do to accomplish this task?”. Step 4.
The transfer is complete and the child now asks themselves, “What do I need to do?" when given the task.
Building Emotion Management Skills: Control Your Temper
The request “control your temper” may be too broad for developing brains to handle on their own. To help students manage emotions, Dr. Persampiere suggests that you work with your child or teen to set specific expectations for acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
Step 1. Together with your child, make a list of things that make them lose their temper (triggers).
Step 2. Come up with ideas to manage or eliminate triggers. For example, if your child loses their temper whenever they play a particular game with their sibling, suggest a new activity.
Step 3. Talk about what “losing your temper” looks or sounds like (yelling, throwing things, acting out). Decide which of these behaviors should go on a “can’t do” list. Keep the list short, work on one or two at a time, and keep it posted where you and your child can reference it.
Step 4. Make a list of things your child can do instead (replacement behaviors). This list should include 3-4 options to replace behaviors on the “can’t do” list. Dr. Persampiere made several easy suggestions: take a walk outside, breathe deeply or take a few minutes alone. The important thing is to choose replacement behaviors that are feasible for your child.
Step 5. Provide encouragement and positive feedback when your child is successful and problem-solve when something doesn’t work. Involve them in the process and create a new strategy that works better for both of you.
An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure
Dr. Persampiere stresses the value of respect when speaking to children and teens. It’s important to communicate that their behavior is something you want to work on, but that they themselves are not the problem.
He encourages parents to be proactive about putting strategies in place when both the adult and child are calm and responsive. Strong emotions limit our ability to process and retain information. The morning of a test is not the time to address your child’s lack of focus and study. If you notice a behavior pattern you'd like to change, talk to your child about putting a plan in place before the next test so they can work toward success in the future. Work together to come up with rules, exceptions to rules, rewards and consequences.
Resources to Build Executive Functioning Skills
Although we have only shared two examples here, Dr. Persampiere offered a wealth of useful strategies with specific examples to address many common issues with children and teens. He operates a private practice in Annapolis specializing in ADHD, anxiety disorders, OCD, depression, anger, aggression, Tourettes’ Syndrome, low self-esteem, and parent-child communication. He works individually with children and teens as well as with the whole family, depending on specific needs. Click here to email him for more information.
Dr. Persampiere’s suggested executive functioning reading list for parents:
- Smart but Scattered by Peg Dawson, Richard Guare
- Smart but Scattered for Teens by Richard Guare, Peg Dawson, Colin Guare
- Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents by Peg Dawson, Richard Guare
- The Work Smart Academic Planner by Peg Dawson, Richard Guare
- The Eclipse Model by Sherry Moyer
- Executive Functioning Workbook for Teens by Sharon A. Hansen MSE NBCT
Parent Education and Support is Our Priority
Dr. Persampiere’s visit is one of several parent forums hosted by our counseling department throughout the year. Each addresses topics relevant to parenting children and adolescents. He will visit Chesapeake Campus on January 25, 2019, to present Executive Dysfunction in the Elementary School-Aged Child: What it Looks Like, What it Feels Like, and What Parents Can Do to Support their Children.