Executive Functioning: Let’s Deepen our Understanding

On their website, The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University describes executive functioning skills as being dependent upon three main ability areas that are interrelated: working or short term memory, flexibility and adaptability of thought and attention, and inhibition or self control.   In practice, I see these abilities come into play many times during the course of working with children and adolescents.  Examples of how weaknesses in these areas impact everyday functioning include the following scenarios:

  • A child responds with physical aggression toward their sibling when they are teased
  • A child has an unexpected and intense meltdown because they are directed to turn off a video game and they do not believe that they had a fair amount of time on the video game
  • An adolescent responds to a text message (that may or may not be interpreted how it was meant) by severing ties with the person/relationship
  • A child or adolescent has persistent difficulty following a morning routine and being on time without constant prodding from a parent/caregiver
  • Persistent difficulties with homework management even though the child or adolescent is cognitively capable of understanding and mastering the concepts

Consider within these scenarios how holding information within one’s working memory, shifting one’s attention and thought processes, and adapting to a circumstance are needed.  I often see individuals showing difficulty making the cognitive shift and lacking an ability to regulate or inhibit their initial negative emotion.  While perspective taking is not mentioned in the above definition, I certainly observe individuals lacking an awareness or understanding of how others in these scenarios feel.  They then feel justified in the response they have given or blame others when they do not show appropriate or successful responses.  When we can break down what is happening in scenarios like these, we can more easily target skill areas that need further development.