Executive Function Skills and the Importance of Task Management

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Executive function skills are a key component to succeeding in life’s endeavors

Filtering out distractions and staying on track until a task is completed is challenging at times for everyone. The world is a busy place, and some of the things we have to get done don’t seem as enjoyable as the activities we’d rather partake in.

However, for some children, the challenge is more prevalent and persistent than it is for others. If your child routinely has difficulty paying attention, remembering instructions, scheduling and managing tasks, and completing activities in a timely manner, they may be experiencing issues with their executive function and self-regulation skills.

Recognizing that an issue may go beyond a simple behavioral problem is the first step in acquiring the information and assistance that will put your child on the path to success. Educate yourself on executive function and self-regulation skills to learn how to help your child organize their actions, regulate their emotions, and consistently meet goals.

What is executive function?

Executive function is a popular phrase among therapists and teachers these days, but a lot of people outside of those industries aren’t exactly clear on what it entails. Generally, when someone is faced with a task, they’re able to:

  • Assess what needs to be done
  • Plan for how they’re going to complete it
  • Organize that plan into consecutive steps
  • Estimate a general time range for completing the task
  • Persist until they’ve achieved their objective

Executive function and self-regulation require working memory, mental dexterity, and self-control; three types of brain functions that operate together to apply these skills to everyday tasks:

  • Working memory allows us to remember and use different pieces of information over short periods of time.
  • Mental dexterity allows us to shift our attention back and forth or to adjust to having different rules or expectations in different environments.
  • Self-control allows us to prioritize tasks and resist impulsive urges.

How to help your child

To the average adult, the process seems intuitive. Children need to be taught executive skills and self-regulation, but they generally gain a sense of understanding from the structure of school and the responsibilities they have within the family. Developing these skills makes life easier and helps build self-confidence in a way that lends itself to future achievements.

A child who has difficulty with executive functions and self-regulation skills may struggle with the following:

  • Starting, prioritizing or completing tasks
  • Remembering what they’ve just heard or read
  • Following directions or a specific order of steps
  • Adjusting to changes in rules or routines
  • Changing from one task to another
  • Organizing their thoughts, belongings, or time

Having difficulty with executive function is a common challenge among people with learning disabilities or ADHD and can be caused by differences in brain development, heredity, or slow processing speed.

If you suspect that your child is struggling, you should bring up your concerns with your pediatrician and consider having a full evaluation done to assess different areas of learning and thinking. Schools often do this kind of testing for free, but a psychologist is another good option for getting answers.

Treatment options may include:

Medication: While there’s no specific diagnosis for executive functioning, it’s often a symptom of another diagnosable issue, like ADHD, where medication may be an appropriate option.

Behavior therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Behavior therapy works toward replacing negative behaviors with positive ones, and CBT helps people manage their thoughts, feelings, and behavior.

School services: A child with executive function skills may benefit from special accommodations in school or help with strategies related to social, academic, and organization skills as well as behavior management.

Homework management program or organizational coaching: Organizational coaches are like tutors, but for time management, study skills, and organization instead of academics. Homework is one area that presents a significant obstacle for children who struggle with executive function skills (and to their families). A homework management program that focuses on task initiation, time management, organization, and prioritization will have benefits that extend far beyond simply finishing homework.

Executive function and self-regulation skills are critical components to the ability to achieve tasks, learn new information, and handle the various responsibilities associated with school, work, chores, and maintaining a social life.

Help your child learn executive skills by establishing routines, providing structure and support, and modeling appropriate behavior. If your child needs additional assistance, don’t hesitate to seek out resources that can help them develop the necessary skills to thrive in life.

At Learning Lab, we support the full “ecosystem” of children who are smart but struggle in a traditional school setting. Our personalized approach for each child teaches the way that they learn and paves the way for a collaborative educational experience between learners, their families, and school communities. Find out how we can help your child.

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