In the world of academics, “executive function” is, to put it mildly, a big deal. A student with weak executive function will probably struggle with staying organized, setting goals, prioritizing, turning in work on time, overcoming the impulse to procrastinate, following instructions, accurately judging the quality of his work, paying attention in class, resisting distractions, solving complicated problems, and deciding how to study when structure isn’t provided.
And outside of academics, weak executive function can contribute to a wide variety of issues, ranging from bad manners to depression to reckless, illegal behavior.
Most parents have at least some sense of what executive function is and why it matters. Less common, however, is a clear understanding of the role parents play in a child’s developing executive function. So let’s dive in.
What is executive function?
Essentially, it’s the CEO of the mind, the part of the brain in charge of what we think and do. It’s the planner, the organizer, and the decider.
However, if you dig into any of the literature about executive function, you’ll quickly learn that it has many components. Some don’t even refer to it in the singular, instead referring to “the executive functions.” I prefer the singular because I like the metaphor of the CEO who possesses all the necessary skills to run a company: Executive function is the collection of skills necessary to run your own life.
Executive function links moment-to-moment decision-making with long-term planning. It’s how we align our actions with our values. This is not a purely intellectual ability, and it is largely independent of IQ, though a high IQ might compensate for or mask some executive function challenges.
Executive function is a combination of social, emotional, and intellectual skills. These three categories overlap a bit and many of the aspects are interconnected, but we can still use these three buckets to sort out the primary components of executive function:
Key intellectual components:
- Deciding what’s worth focusing on and then paying attention to it
- Working memory – the ability to juggle several pieces of information in the mind at once
- Comprehension and creativity – putting the puzzle pieces together by seeing how they relate to one another
- Planning – thinking about the future, considering various options, and deciding on a course of action
- Troubleshooting – using flexible thinking and resourcefulness to navigate unexpected problems
Key emotional components:
- Awareness of your own emotions and the capacity for introspection
- The ability to distinguish yourself and your values from how you feel in the moment
- The ability to choose courses of action that run counter to how you feel in the moment
- Keeping your cool when things don’t go the way you planned
- Patience, willpower, and delayed gratification
Key social components:
- Awareness of other people’s emotions, desires, and perspectives
- Awareness of how you appear to others
- Consideration, politeness, manners, and waiting your turn
- Communicating – choosing your words carefully and thinking before you speak
- Asking for help when you need it
These are all very important skills for success in both school and life. And because executive function is composed of so many little skills, there is no magic pill or silver bullet that fixes executive function problems. Instead, there are countless little opportunities to help develop and strengthen these skills.
It’s another classic case of growing rather than fixing, and a fantastic arena in which to employ the philosophy of everything counts. Every moment is an opportunity to make progress, and every step in the right direction is worthwhile.
Also, because executive function is a constellation of skills and not a single characteristic, two individuals who are “weak” in executive function may have quite different skill-profiles, which would then result in different outcomes and guide us toward different approaches for accommodation and remediation. For example, someone may be very good at planning, but very poor at social-emotional comprehension, while another individual could have the opposite skill-profile. Both have executive function issues, but they are quite dissimilar. Hence, executive function work needs to be personalized to match the particular student in question.
Where is executive function in the brain?
Mostly, it’s in the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain right behind the forehead. It is one of the newest and largest parts of the brain.
And for parents, probably the most important thing to know is that the prefrontal cortex develops last. It is still developing into our mid-twenties, which is partly why car rental companies don’t do business with people who are under 25. They’ve known that young drivers are more prone to reckless behavior for far longer than we’ve had the neuroscience to explain why.
Although development “finishes” during our mid-twenties, we’re still able to improve the prefrontal cortex throughout adulthood because it’s the most dynamic, malleable part of the brain. The prefrontal cortex, which is the primary seat of executive function, is the area of the brain with the most potential for growth. And, it’s worth noting that the most well-researched method for strengthening the prefrontal cortex is meditation, which is a classic example of neurogenesis. (Side-note: mindfulness and the four skills that it’s composed of are closely related to executive function. Click here to learn about those four skills and the benefits of mindfulness as a whole.)
Critically, however, the prefrontal cortex is also the part of the brain that is most vulnerable to hunger and fatigue, and it is the first thing to shut down when we’re experiencing an emotional crisis. This is the result of your brain’s history, as newer parts of your brain are prone to shutting down when our basic needs aren’t being met. This means that being well-rested and well-fed is a simple way to improve executive function.
This also means that even strong executive function skills can evaporate at certain times of day or during emotionally challenging situations. For example, I am not a morning person, so my executive function is horrendously low for the first hour or two of the day. For this reason, I have established a very consistent morning routine that sets me up to have a better day. I also map out my days the night before because I know that I’ll struggle with planning in the morning. This is self-imposed “scaffolding”: My routines provide a framework for me to lean on when I’m too tired to think straight.
So, another way to support executive function is to establish consistent routines for those times when your children are likely to struggle the most: times when they’re tired, times when they’re hungry, or times of transition. The three most classic are: the morning, right after school, and bedtime.
So what’s the parent’s role in developing the child’s executive function?
In many ways, the answer to that question depends on the age of the child.
Initially, parents must do everything for their children because babies are pretty helpless. But as time goes on, children can do more for themselves. So instead of doing everything for them, parents provide support, guidance, and boundaries. Children develop increasing abilities and independence using this scaffolding that parents provide. And as children become teenagers and teenagers become adults, the scaffolding is gradually reduced until it’s no longer needed at all.
The goal, of course, is for them to grow up into fully independent adults who are no longer reliant on you. This can only happen if they have opportunities to practice increasing independence as they grow up. Therefore, micromanaging must steadily give way to a more hands-off approach.
Let’s use the example of clothing to explore this transition from infancy to adulthood.
When your child is an infant, you dress her because she cannot put on her own clothes. At some point during toddlerhood, you shift to helping her dress herself. Eventually, she is capable of dressing herself, so she does it on her own, but you might still be choosing her clothes for her. Choosing clothes might then become a joint-effort between the two of you, but eventually she’ll pick out her own outfits. You might still exercise the power of veto if she chooses poorly or selects clothes inappropriate for a formal event. Later, this might just be a reminder to take a jacket if it’s cold outside. Throughout her childhood, you purchase her clothes for her, but at some point, she starts giving input while you’re shopping for clothes. Later, she buys her own clothes but uses your money. And lastly, she buys her own clothes with her own money.
This gradual decrease in parental support is relatively straightforward when it comes to clothing, but it can be much more challenging and much more complicated when it comes to such areas as succeeding in school or staying safe. For these, deciding how much control to exert and when to let go is very difficult, and there are no simple answers. Granting your child increasing levels of independence is necessary, but it’s also risky.
And with risk comes emotion. It’s hard to watch your child do something unsafe, and it’s hard to watch your child make choices that lead to low grades. But if your child is to develop executive function, she’ll need to have opportunities to screw up. And it’s often better to let her learn these hard lessons when the stakes are still relatively low.
Finding the right balance between short-term success and long-term growth is difficult, but it’s a worthwhile effort. It is possible to find a middle ground between helicopter parenting and laissez-faire parenting, between micromanaging and being completely hands off. This is very similar to the fruitful middle ground that exists between extremes of parenting styles. In between the extremes of doing it all for them and doing nothing at all, there are varying degrees of scaffolding. And, most importantly, there is always modeling.
In addition to providing active support, parents also have the very important job of leading by example. Parents are the primary role models for children, and your actions often speak much louder than your words. As Greg Smith likes to say, “Children are always learning, and parents are always teaching. It’s just probably not happening when you think it is.”
Young children might be open to taking your executive function advice, but older children and especially teenagers are likely to reject any advice you give. Indeed, sometimes telling a teenager to “be organized” or “use a planner” actually makes the problem worse because they’ll do the opposite of what you’ve advised in order to assert their growing independence. (See also: “Why a Teenager is Like a Chinese Finger-Trap”)
This means modeling is your primary tool for “teaching” executive function.
“You can preach a better sermon with your life than with your lips.” –Oliver Goldsmith
The trouble is, when you get really good at executive function, as most adults do, too much of it is done in silence, too much is done in your head. And when executive function skills are utilized in this way, your children don’t get to observe you working things out. You need to give them more opportunities to see and hear your executive function techniques in action.
This means verbalizing your thought processes more – not talking to your children, but talking in the presence of your children. It also means being transparent about your challenges with problem-solving, emotional regulation, and taking the perspective of others. And it means being deliberately open about the use of tools, techniques, and strategies to enhance your executive function.
Let your children see you using a notebook to write down your ideas. Let them see you relying on reminders rather than memory. Let them see you brainstorming a to-do list for the weekend. Let them see you using a calendar to plan ahead. Let them see you asking questions and learning from mistakes. Let them see you being an active agent in life.
They may not be ready to use any of these tools, or they simply may not want to. That’s okay. Telling them to use them would only create more resistance. Steadily lead by example so that, when they are ready, they’ll have a model to follow.
Grow Those Muscles
All the skills I mentioned in the detailed breakdown of executive function are like little brain muscles. These abilities become stronger with use. Difficult academic courses, chores, volunteer work, and jobs all offer opportunities to exercise those skills. So encouraging children to take on obligations and challenges is a great way to help them develop stronger executive function. Though they may not initially be ready for the tasks they take on, they’ll get stronger by struggling. Responsibilities make you more response-able; they cultivate self-efficacy.
There are, however, more enjoyable ways to develop executive function skills. Play and games of all types can support the growth of executive function. Strategy games in particular require the key intellectual skills of planning and choosing. And more interactive games and imaginative play help cultivate the emotional and social skills of executive function. Getting stronger can be fun!
More to Come
This is a big topic, and I’ve barely scratched the surface.
My goal here was to lay the groundwork for deeper exploration into executive function and provide a framework through which to think about supporting executive function development in children. Future blog posts will look more at specific strategies and tactics parents can use. In the meantime, you might peruse our list of recommended executive function books.
And you’re always welcome to dive into specifics in a one-on-one setting with either Greg Smith or myself.
Greg, through Northwest Educational Services, offers parent coaching. He would love to discuss how you can support executive function growth at home. We will also be offering a seminar devoted to this topic in August as part of our 5-part series on “Parenting For Academic Success.”
Or if you’re interested in developing stronger executive function yourself, you can work directly with me. Strengthening your personal executive function is essential to everything from career advancement to improving your mental health. Plus, you want to be adept at modeling executive function skills in front of your kids, right?
About the Author
Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014. He also writes the popular self-improvement blog Becoming Better, so if you liked this article, head on over to becomingbetter.org and check out his other work. Chris also offers behavioral change coaching, helping busy adults with habit formation and productivity. He lives in Seattle, WA.
I have drawn from numerous sources, all of which overlap with one another in some way. And my primary resource for this was none other than the owner of Northwest Educational Services, Greg Smith. So in lieu of a traditional works cited list, here are the books and websites I’ve drawn from:
Forgan, James, Ph.D. and Mary Anne Richey. The Impulsive, Disorganized Child: Solutions for Parenting Kids with Executive Functioning Difficulties. Prufrock Press, 2015.
Galinsky, Ellen. Mind in the Making. HarperStudio, 2010.
Tough, Paul. How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.
MacDonald, Matthew. Your Brain: The Missing Manual. O’Reilly Media, 2008.
Alhola, Paula and Päivi Polo-Kantola. “Sleep deprivation: Impact on cognitive performance.” Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2007 Oct; 3(5): 553–567. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2656292/
Diamond, Adele. “Executive Functions.” Annu Rev Psychol. 2013; 64: 135–168. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4084861/
“Overview of Executive Functions.” Weill Institute for Neurosciences. University of California, San Francisco. http://memory.ucsf.edu/ftd/overview/biology/executive/single
“Executive Function & Self-Regulation.” Center on the Developing Child. Harvard University. 2017. http://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/executive-function/
“Executive Function.” Child Mind Institute. 2017. https://childmind.org/topics/concerns/executive-function/
Lahey, Jessica. “How Family Game Night Makes Kids Into Better Students.” The Atlantic. July 16th, 2014. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/07/how-family-game-night-makes-kids-into-better-students/374525/
Lazar, Sara W., et al. “Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness.” NIH Public Access. US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. February 6, 2006. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1361002/.