Hands in a heart shape holding an infinity rainbox. Underneath the words Sandra Bell ND Coach
#11 Let’s talk about Executive Function…

·        Executive function (EF) is how you get things done

·        Executive dysfunction is not just caused by a lack of skills – also related to stress and agency 

·        When EF is offline or compromised we need to be curious and work out is it skills, environment, or task related

Executive function (EF) is how you get things done

 There are a LOT of different definitions out there for Executive Function. The simplest being - it’s how you get things done. A dictionary definition is: “the group of complex mental processes and cognitive abilities (such as working memory, impulse inhibition, and reasoning) that control the skills (such as organising tasks, remembering details, managing time, and solving problems) required for goal-directed behaviour” Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

As seen in the dictionary definition, EF can be broken down into key components such as self-control; self-monitoring; emotional regulation; flexibility; task initiation; organisation; working memory; and planning & time management. Different sources do this breakdown, and even the number of key components, differently so there is no hard and fast definition. 

The thinking is that EF develops naturally throughout childhood (even up to the early 30s) with certain aspects expected to be obtained by certain age ranges, whilst those who don’t meet these artificial timelines might need be trained in EF skills. Hmmm, sounds like a bit like that pesky idea that those of us who are neurodivergent need social training… 

There is an element of ableism within the EF definitions and criteria, in that some of the questions used to diagnose executive dysfunction pathologise a different way of doing things. For example, a question to figure out if someone has the component of time management might be - I get so wrapped up in what I am doing that I forget about other things I need to do. For someone who is monotropic they would have to stop their natural ability to hyperfocus in order to be deemed as having good time management skills. There is also no consideration about stress levels or agency that may be contributing to a person's ability to get things done, rather than a lack of skill in a question such as - I’m slow getting ready for school, work, or appointments.

Executive dysfunction is not just caused by a lack of skills – also related to stress and agency

I must admit when I first came across the concept of Executive Function years ago it was like a lightbulb for me that my kids weren't being deliberately difficult when they wouldn’t just “get ready for school”, that it could be a lack of knowing how to. That is – can’t not won’t. 

When you think about it, in order to get out the front door each morning there is a lot to be done – wake up, get up, make breakfast, eat breakfast, make lunch, find clothes, get out of pyjamas, maybe have a shower, put on clothes, brush teeth, go to the toilet, pack bag, put on socks and shoes, make sure you have everything, leave the house. Whew – that’s a lot and sometimes we just package that all into - all they need to do is “get ready for school”.

So along came the strategies to teach them the skills – we made morning checklists that had images or photos beside each sub-task, and a way to tick them off once they’d been done. Job done, now they had all the steps laid out. Or was it job done…? Some days it was and they happily worked their way through the checklist, other days it went completely off the rails. Hmmm, why would that be? They now knew what to do, and had done it successfully more than once. Could it be it went off the rails the days they didn’t have a good sleep? Or I was stressed because I had a big presentation to do at work that day? Could they easily get ready the days we were heading out to do something they had chosen, like go to the zoo? Yes – lack of sleep raises stress levels, yes – a parent being stressed can lead to kids feeling stress through co-regulation; and yes - they had agency because they had chosen the zoo activity. So still can’t not won’t – just a different cause and hence different strategies needed.

When EF is offline or compromised we need to be curious and work out - is it skills, environment, or the task itself?

So, although there are a plethora of checklists and questionnaires out there you can do to find out what EF skills your kids are struggling with so you can help train them in those areas; the fact of the matter is that it isn’t that simple. When your child, or you, are struggling to get things done we need to step back and get curious. 

Is it really a lack of skills - do they just not know how to keep their room clean, or set time limits on tasks to ensure they have time to do everything they need to? OK, then we help them learn.

Or is it that they can do these things when they are regulated and/or have an interest in what they are being asked to do or the goal they are trying to achieve? If they aren’t regulated then we need to get curious about the environment – do they feel psychologically safe, are they well rested, are they hungry…

Are they able to problem solve and be flexible when they are playing video games, i.e. they are fully engaged? If so it may be a lack of agency over the task or goal they are being asked to achieve. I wonder if we see executive functioning developing right through until our early 30s because that is how long it truly takes us to gain optimum agency over our lives.

Thanks for reading.

When is your EF at its best? Comment below

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