Executive functions are a set of processes that all involve managing oneself and one’s resources to achieve a goal. They serve a command and control function and can be viewed as a kind of conductor of all cognitive skills.
Andrea Pitman is the executive director and founder of The Nectar Group. She has over 18 years of experience working with children, adults, and families through cognitive skills training, consulting, and teaching. In a recent webinar for Harmony Foundation, Pittman discussed the importance of executive functioning skills for human behavior and mental health.
Executive functioning (EF) comprises skills such as response inhibition, emotional control, sustained attention, goal-directed persistence, task initiation, time management, toleration of stress, and more. It’s a kind of “air traffic control” of the brain, Pittman explained, enabling people to focus, hold and work with information in the mind and filter distractions.
Furthermore, executive function skills make it possible to mentally play with ideas, think before acting, meet novel, unanticipated challenges, resist temptations, stay focused to complete tasks, and override the brain’s autopilot.
This means that executive functioning is essential for mental and physical health, success in school, work, and life, as well as cognitive, social, and psychological development.
“Lapses in executive functioning are common,” Pittman told the webinar participants. “Their seriousness and frequency can reflect individual strengths and weaknesses when it comes to executive functioning.”
Strong executive function skills develop through healthy relationships (caregivers provide a consistent, reliable presence and support children’s efforts); activities (caregivers help children learn how to cope and foster open-ended, creative play); places (environments that feel safe); and development (accountability and independence are encouraged).
EF weaknesses occur on a spectrum: they can be mild, mild-moderate, moderate, moderate-severe, and severe. Effective treatment moves the patient to the less severe end of the spectrum and in some cases, off the spectrum if diagnostic criteria are no longer met. There are two treatment approaches: compensation through accommodation or overcoming through treatment intervention that addresses the root causes. “Compensatory measures focus on coping with the disability and symptom management,” said Pittman. “Intervention focuses on overcoming the disability by treating the root cause.”
Various strategies can be employed to address EF weaknesses, such as lessening multitasking, providing a quiet work and study space, reducing distractions, modify or limiting task length and demand. To strengthen emotional control, triggers may be reduced or eliminated, and coping mechanisms explored and rehearsed.
To improve organizational skills, the structure of the environment could be improved and rooms decluttered. Goal-oriented persistence can be achieved by setting SMART (specific, meaningful, adaptive, realistic, and time-framed) goals.
And don’t forget to take regular breaks!
After a thorough cognitive assessment, a therapist can provide intensive coaching to achieve improvements in executive functioning. Coaching works by stressing a weak area through mental exercise, encouraging the brain to build new neural networks. Executive function and study skills coaching may improve skills such as self-advocacy, study skills, time management, and organization.
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