Executive Functioning Issues in Children: Useful Information for Parents

Executive function refers to the mental skills that help the brain to organise and act on information. This set of skills is the building block that enables us to plan, organise, remember things, prioritise, pay attention and get started on tasks. It also empowers us with problem-solving skills as we go through the tough moments in life.

What are executive functioning issues?

While executive functioning issues are not considered a type of disability, they are a form of weaknesses in mental skills. Executive functioning issues often appear in children with learning and attention issues.

Children who have executive functioning issues are known to struggle with tasks that require this set of skills, including:

  • Keeping track of time
  • Making plans
  • Making sure work is finished on time
  • Multitasking
  • Applying previous information to solve current problems
  • Analysing ideas
  • Looking for help or more information when needed

How executive functioning works

One of the ways to help you better understand the difficulties that children with executive functioning issues go through is to see how the executive functioning works. The steps below show an example of the executive functioning process:

  1. Analyse a task and figure out what is to be done
  2. Plan how to complete the task
  3. Plan in a series of steps to reach the goal of completing the task
  4. Think of how much time that needs to be set aside to carry out the plan
  5. Make adjustments to the plan if necessary
  6. Finish the task within the allocated time

For individuals carrying out simple tasks and whose executive functioning is working well, the brain would be able to go through these steps quickly and with ease. However, for children with executive functioning issues, the act of performing simple tasks such as putting a load of laundry to wash can be challenging.

Skills affected by executive functioning issues

Children with executive functioning issues may struggle with a few key executive skills, which include the following:

Impulse control

Impulse control refers to the child’s ability to stop and think before acting in any given situation. Lack of impulse control can be a symptom of ADHD, which leads children to act and behave in the following manner:

  • Doing unsafe things without thinking it through
  • Difficulty in following rules
  • Rushing through homework without checking
  • Quitting a chore/task halfway through to do something else

Emotional control

This refers to the child’s ability to manage his/her feelings and focus on the end goal. While closely related to impulse control, individuals who lack emotional control have the tendency to do the following:

  • Struggle with accepting negative feedback
  • Overreact to little injustices
  • Struggle to complete a task when something upsets them

Flexibility

This involves the child’s ability to come up with a new solution when an existing plan fails. Children who lack flexibility are known to show the following traits:

  • Think in a very concrete and rigid manner
  • Fixated on doing things their own way
  • Difficulty adapting to changes
  • Display frustration and panic when asked to change

Working memory

This refers to the child’s ability to retain information in his/her mind and use it to complete a task. Children who have weak working memory skills often struggle with multi-step tasks and tend to do the following:

  • Find it challenging to remember directions and understand something that has been explained to them
  • Often say “I forgot what I was going to say”

Self-monitoring

This refers to the child’s ability to keep track of and evaluate his/her performance on regular tasks. Children who have difficulty in self-monitoring lack self-awareness. They are unsure if their strategies are working or if they even have one in the first place. In addition, they often struggle to check their work.

Planning and prioritising

This set of skills refers to the child’s ability to come up with a plan to reach their goal and to prioritise which task to do first. Children with weak planning and prioritising skills may not know how to start planning a project and are easily overwhelmed when trying to break their tasks into smaller and simpler tasks. As a whole, they struggle with seeing the overall idea.

Task initiation

This refers to the child’s ability to start on a task. Children who struggle with this skill often have difficulty in planning and prioritising their tasks. Without a plan in mind, it is challenging to know how and where to start. Children with task initiation issues may appear as lazy or simply procrastinating, but in actual fact, they are simply overwhelmed that they freeze and do nothing.

Organisation

This refers to the child’s ability to keep track of information and things. Children who lack organisational skills are constantly losing or misplacing things. They also can’t seem to find a way to be organised no matter how hard they try.

 

With the help of their parents and loved ones at home, children with executive functioning issues can be guided to overcome or work around their weaknesses. It may also be beneficial to seek help from a speech and occupational therapist to support both you and your child in working through these issues.

 

Article contributed by the MindChamps Allied Care Team. Click here to make an appointment with a therapist.

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