Have you ever wondered how some children seem to effortlessly manage their tasks, stay focused, follow directions, and achieve their goals? Or have you, as a parent or caregiver, seen another parent who appears to have it all together, always on time or early to play dates and remembering to fill out all the questionnaires their doctors ask to have done before appointments? It’s almost like these children and other parents have secret superpowers! The truth is, we all do! These superpowers are executive functioning skills, and they can make a big difference in your child’s life (and yours, too!).
What are Executive Functioning Skills
Executive functioning skills refer to an important set of skills that help us do things like concentrate, plan, and decide what’s most important. These skills help us work towards goals, control our behavior and emotions, adapt to new situations, think about complex ideas, and make plans. It’s like having a superhero guide or sidekick that leads children (and adults) through the twists and turns of everyday life. A very special power that enhances their ability to manage time, make good decisions, control impulses, and adapt to changes.
Unlike some superpowers, executive functioning skills are not innate or something we are born with. People grow and develop these skills over time. These skills start developing when we are babies but are not fully developed until adulthood. Developing executive functioning skills, like other skills (i.e., playing the piano, soccer), takes practice, and not everyone catches on at the same pace – and that’s okay!
Executive functioning skills are made up of different parts and do not all develop simultaneously for everyone. See the table in the following section for key components of executive functioning skills and what it means and doesn’t mean!
Executive Functioning Skills
|Executive Functioning Superpower
Knowing how you’re doing right now and understanding how your actions can affect other people.
|Made up of two areas: observation (identify thought/behavior and what might happen afterward) and recording (make changes based on what happened)
|Self-monitoring means you are constantly criticizing or judging yourself. Nope! You are bringing awareness to your own actions and desired outcomes.
The ability to resist distractions and control your actions without giving in to impulsive urges.
|Think before we act! Inhibitory control helps manage our urges to make an appropriate or needed choice. (i.e., I want to eat a whole tub of ice cream, but I know it will upset my stomach)
|Self-control exists, or it does not! This is false. Self-control is like a muscle that can be built up over time.
Adapting to Change
Being able to consider different perspectives and adapt your behavior when faced with unexpected situations and changes.
|Flexibility can help us from repeating the same mistake (problem-solving), understand others better (perspective-taking), and help us respond to stress better in adulthood (adapting to change).
|Flexibility means compromising your values/beliefs. Untrue! It helps you take different perspectives and be okay with change.
Knowing and properly managing your emotions.
|Emotional control can not only help us feel better about ourselves but can also improve relationships with other people.
|Emotional control means ignoring your emotions! Not true! It’s healthy to acknowledge your emotions and understand why you have them to gain that emotional control.
Starting tasks without delay and coming up with ideas without relying on others.
|Task initiation can be difficult across all ages, and kids who do not immediately do chores or follow directions are not trying to be defiant. They may struggle to transition between tasks, gather needed items for tasks, or identify starting points of tasks.
|Once you have this skill, it won’t go away! Oops! Like most executive functioning skills, this takes practice! Sometimes task initiation comes easier for certain tasks we are motivated by – and that’s normal!
Recalling and using information at a later time.
|Working memory allows us to hold on to information without losing track of what we are currently doing and organize new information to remember so it does not get lost.
|Working memory is fixed and cannot be improved. False! There are different strategies and exercises that you can do to support your working memory!
Set and meet goals to handle tasks happening now and in the future.
|Think of it as a roadmap. Planning allows us to prioritize tasks that need to get done first (following multi-step directions; “first, then”).
|Planning/organizing means you lack creativity. Wrong! It can help reduce distractions, so you are more creative!
Staying on Track
Checking your own performance while completing a task.
|Task monitoring helps us break down our steps, see if we are meeting our goals, and determine if we need to change our approach.
|Task-Monitoring is only needed for complex or long-term tasks. Think again! Big or small, task monitoring helps you stay on track and achieve your goals!
Keeping track of materials/belongings.
|Students commonly lose assignments or forget to turn papers in at school, but it could also manifest as a messy room, never knowing where they put something and can impact their ability to get things done or initiate tasks.
|There is only one way to organize, and everything needs to be neat and tidy. Not for everyone! Organization methods differ for everyone. Focus on what works for your child!
Exploring the World of Executive Functioning Skills
In this Superpowers Series, we will explore the world of executive functioning skills, uncovering the secrets behind these superpowers. We will understand the key parts of executive functioning, discover how difficulties might present themselves to your child in school and everyday life, and provide practical strategies for nurturing and unleashing their own executive functioning skills. This knowledge and skill-building can empower you, as a parent, and your child to become their own superhero. Don’t forget to meet your child where they are so you can help support their own superpower development so they can do these skills independently.
Are you still thinking about these superpowers? Watch Sky High (2005; Available on Disney+) to see how each superpower/superhero develops at its own pace. Some have stronger powers than others, like executive functioning skills; some areas may be stronger than others!