What is Executive Function?

What is Executive Function?

11 May, 2021

Executive function, also known as self-regulation, consists of those thinking skills we use to stay focused, control our impulses, plan short- and long-term, and adapt to new information. Most people only notice their own executive functioning when they experience a lapse in it. You may have had the familiar experience of planning to stop at the store on the way home from work, but accidentally driving home by habit. Another example would be going to the pantry to grab an ingredient for a dish, but immediately forgetting which ingredient that was once you actually open the pantry door.

Executive functioning skills are essential to running a household, succeeding at work or school, and managing your finances. In other words, they are an essential part of developing into an independent adult.

A lot of people are looking to improve their executive ability for obvious reasons. They can help you stay on track for a promotion at work; they can help you get the best possible score on a standardized test; they can even help you reach your fitness tracker step goal. They are the way that we achieve our goals.

Definition Executive Functioning

For our definition executive functioning consists of a few key components. These components, used together, allow you to self-regulate. Each of these components interacts with each other in diverse ways, to allow you to complete a wide array of activities that require self-regulation. This means that struggling with even one of these components can pose significant overall barriers.

  • Working Memory- This is your ability to hold something in your brain temporarily, especially as you are doing something else simultaneously. This could be remembering what already happened in the plot when you are reading a book or simultaneously listening to someone while formulating a response.
  • Inhibitory Control- Referred to in colloquial terms as impulse control or self-control, this is your ability to choose the appropriate behavior even when it is not the most natural or easiest behavior.
  • Cognitive Flexibility- This is your ability to recognize changing circumstances and adjust your behavior appropriately.

Working Memory

There are two different models that psychologists use to understand working memory. One is the multicomponent model, pioneered by Baddeley and Hitch. This theory postulates that working memory consists of three different components, each of them storing a different kind of input (audio, visual, or other) that is coordinated by the central executive. The other is the long-term memory model, first described by Ericsson and Kintsch. This theory asserts that working memory is not its own type of memory, but rather a part of the long-term memory that is accessed through unique retrieval structures.

Children slowly and steadily improve in their working memory skills until the age of 25, when these skills begin to plateau, then later decline with age. While working memory can be improved through practice and training, it can also be impaired by stress or negative thoughts.

Inhibitory Control

Inhibitory control is useful in many aspects of everyday life. It is the reason we act respectfully even when it is really hard; it is the reason we don’t yell or hit every time we’re angry; it is the reason we follow the law even when there is no one there to enforce it. Inhibitory control is the reason we follow the rules, do our work, and act appropriately even when it is really hard and we don’t want to.

Poor inhibitory control in children is often mistaken for willful defiance, resulting in unnecessary stress and conflict for parents, teachers, and the child. Impaired inhibitory control is associated with diminished lifetime earnings, poorer academic outcomes, and higher chances of incarceration. Because of this, accurate recognition and addressing of inhibitory control difficulties is essential.

Cognitive Flexibility

Cognitive flexibility is both the ability to adapt to changing circumstances and to see things from multiple points of view. Adapting to change includes the ability to substitute ingredients in a recipe, find an alternate route to work, or adjust your strategy when the rules of a game change.

Cognitive flexibility also allows you to see things from other’s perspectives, both figuratively and literally. It is the ability to recognize that someone on the other side of an opaque curtain from you won’t be able to see the same things you can see. It is also the ability to understand why a good friend stopped talking to you when everything seemed to be going well in the friendship from your perspective.

Ways to Improve Executive Function

1. Context

You might have noticed a decline in your self-regulation ability following work and school moving online. That is because self-regulation skills are highly influenced by context. You probably know this if you have ever signed up for an exercise class or joined a study group for motivation. When you are surrounded by people who are working hard, you are more likely to work hard yourself.

Without the work or classroom environment to keep you in the right mindset, you might be finding your self-regulation skills slipping. The good news is that you don’t need to be with these people in person to stay motivated. Studies show that just knowing that your peers are using their executive functioning skills can encourage you to better self-regulate yourself.

If you are finding the remote format inhibiting your work, it might be helpful to take the initiative to start an accountability group with your classmates or colleagues. This should not be a place to judge other people or monitor their progress, but rather a place to share successes, small and large, that might encourage others to stay on track.

2. Celebrating your Failures

People with poor self-regulation skills are sometimes perceived as not caring enough about their performance. Often to the contrary, they care a lot. Caring a lot isn’t a bad thing, but depending on how you manage it, it can inhibit your ability to complete something.

Disappointment coming from failure or fear of failure often leads to avoiding a necessary task. Many cases of procrastination are actually just avoidance arising from fear of failure. Learning to allow yourself to make mistakes, learn from them, and celebrate them as an opportunity to grow.

Looking at failure, not as a bad thing, but as a learning experience can help manage the negative emotions surrounding it. The goal is to find peace with failure so that you can approach difficult tasks without fear or hesitation.

3. Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the practice of focusing on the present moment, with attention to thought, feelings, and internal emotions, as well as the things you see, hear, feel, and smell around you.

One of the greatest benefits of mindfulness is the non-judgmental acknowledgment and acceptance of emotions, including negative ones. This includes accepting when you feel sad, frustrated, bored, or distracted, while simultaneously maintaining focus on the present moment. This is a great skill to have if you tend to find yourself getting distracted frequently or if you ever find yourself too emotionally overwhelmed to stay focused on your work.

Things That Don’t Improve Self-Regulation

1. Unconstructive Criticism

Being accused of not caring about your work or told that you just need to work harder isn’t particularly encouraging or helpful. Frustrated parents and teachers alike might fall into this trap when it seems like their kid just isn’t doing anything. They’re on their phone instead of studying, doodling in the margins instead of taking notes, or staring off into the distance instead of paying attention. If they would just work harder, everything would be better.

But that really isn’t useful advice to anyone— even to yourself. Most people want to work hard. They want to engage that part of their brain all the time. But sometimes things just can get in the way. Instead, express curiosity as to what is keeping them from self-regulating and if there is any way to help. Make sure your questions don’t come off as accusatory but rather as genuine and caring.

2. Ignoring a Mental Health Issue

There is no pushing through mental illness or executive function disorder. While some people may still be able to perform satisfactorily at work or compartmentalize their health concerns, this isn’t a solution. No amount of optimizing your environment, workspace, or lifestyle will do nearly as much as receiving proper treatment. Many of the above tricks may not even work if you have certain medical conditions affecting your functioning.

3. Assigning Tasks that Kids are not Developmentally Ready For

If you ever find yourself looking at a child and thinking to yourself “this kid would be fine if they just had more work ethic,” it might be time to take a step back and ask yourself if the amount of self-regulation required for this task is developmentally appropriate for the child's age. This applies to teenagers too, as executive functioning continues to develop into adulthood.

Break it down step by step. Do your homework isn’t just doing your homework. It’s remembering you have homework to do, initiating the task, sharpening your pencil, finding the worksheet, managing your emotions when you get something wrong, maintaining focus when there is something more fun to do, and being able to ask for help or find a solution on your own when you can't do something.

That’s a lot to ask a kid to do! They might be ready for some of these things but not others and it’s important to keep that in mind. Just like you wouldn’t walk into the gym for the first time and expect to be able to lift 200 lbs., you cannot expect a kid to walk into the classroom for the first time and know-how to do their assignments. Self-regulation skills take time and lots of practice to develop. It’s easy for adults to forget how much effort it took to build those skills after decades of daily brain workouts.

Coaching for Executive Functioning

Coaching for Diagnosed Difficulties

Having a tutor with the experience, knowledge, and skills to teach someone with diagnosed self-regulation difficulties can make a world of difference. They can offer a combination of understanding, patience, and skills-building that both make the learning experience more pleasant and more effective.

Building Self-Regulation Skills Through Coaching

Tutoring or coaching is definitely useful for everyone even if you do not have a diagnosed disorder. Repeating something over and over again to remember something, fidgeting, and using pneumonic devices are all self-regulation strategies you probably didn’t even realize were executive functioning skills. Tutoring can help you identify and build more of those skills.

Incorporating Specialty Tutoring in Other Programs

Learning can be draining, especially if you are learning something you don’t enjoy or really struggle with. Finding a tutor who can teach you material, while also helping with self-regulation skills will help you learn more effectively.

If you think that you could benefit from specialized coaching or tutoring, go to noodlepros.com to get matched with an experienced tutor.

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