What Is Executive Functioning?

Executive functioning is a series of thinking processes that control the rest of what the brain does.

I often describe it to parents as being like the CEO of an organisation. The CEO runs the organisation. He or she doesn’t do all the work, but works out where the resources are needed, changes the focus quickly when required, and has an overall plan. The CEO deals with the unexpected and has the organisation doing multiple operations at the same time.

As children grow they have to learn to do all these things with their brain. By the time they are adults they are competent at multitasking, keeping attention on a task, changing focus quickly, planning and organising, fixing misunderstandings, and controlling impulses. They need to be able to display emotions that are appropriate to a situation and to remember and process information.

The frontal lobe part of the brain is involved in all these executive functions. If children do not develop their executive functioning skills at the rate expected for their age, they have all sorts of difficulties with attention, communication and relationships. They can be bright, intelligent children who become frustrated and don’t seem to achieve their potential. The situation can be extremely frustrating for parents and for teachers.

Children with executive functioning deficits find it difficult to control escalating emotions. They tend to overreact and often people feel like they are “walking on egg shells” around them. They are procrastinators and don’t know where to start a task. They don’t edit their work well and spell erratically. Their listening can appear impulsive, listening some times and not others.

They often don’t learn from their mistakes. They also tend to get stuck on one line of thought. They often think there is only one solution to a problem.

In conversation they sometimes don’t notice when the topic has changed. When they talk they can mix up the tenses and often use long, convoluted sentences without getting to the main point.

One of the most frustrating things for parents is when children start to tell them about something without taking into account their listener’s perspective. So they don’t think to say what they are talking about, or when it happened or who it happened to. They fail to supply important information but get upset when other people don’t understand them.

They certainly can’t multitask. There is no point in trying to talk to them while they are watching TV or playing on the computer!

Difficulties in executive functioning have an effect on communication and social skills. If this sounds like your child, find a local Speech Pathologist who works on these areas of language to get them back on track.