What Are Executive Functions? (And Methods to Assess Them)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published May 31, 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Executive functioning skills are crucial to socializing within communities, excelling in school, and achieving success in the workplace. These skills help children build relationships with their peers and handle daily responsibilities. Learning how to encourage these skills in children can be beneficial for you, especially if you're exploring a career in education. In this article, we discuss what executive functions are, explore their most relevant aspects, outline procedures you can use to assess these functions in children, discover causes of issues with executive functioning skills, and describe how to help children struggling with executive functioning skills.

What are executive functions?

Executive functions typically help individuals pay attention, remember instructions, and complete tasks. The brain's frontal lobe usually controls these functions as they develop during childhood. Executive functioning skills help individuals organize and plan activities, regulate emotions, understand different opinions, manage time, focus on activities, and develop creative solutions to challenges. Some children may have issues with their executive functioning ability due to injuries to their frontal lobe. It may affect their ability to complete tasks and socialize in school. Children can improve their executive functioning skills through constant practice and helpful techniques.

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Important aspects of executive functioning

Here's a list of important aspects of executive functioning for your consideration:

Working memory

This aspect of executive functioning typically allows individuals to retain information and apply it in various contexts. Working memory may also involve discovering connections between ideas, considering alternatives, and understanding processes. For instance, working memory helps students understand and apply formulas to solve math problems. It may also help them follow instructions to complete a task. Children that struggle with learning and concentration may experience challenges with their working memory. Dividing tasks and information into smaller units can help them.

Cognitive flexibility

Cognitive flexibility typically involves the ability to adapt behaviour to fit environmental changes. This aspect of executive functioning ability helps individuals change their perspectives on different concepts or simultaneously consider multiple ideas. It usually helps individuals adapt to new environments and use the appropriate rules for different environments. This ability typically helps individuals switch between different tasks. For instance, cognitive flexibility helps students know when to apply a different method or approach when solving a problem. Practising different solutions and scenarios can help children improve their cognitive flexibility.

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Inhibitory control

This explains an individual's ability to control emotions, thoughts, and behaviours to fit their environment. This aspect of executive functioning typically helps individuals override their instincts and impulses. Inhibitory control gives individuals the ability to concentrate on specific tasks or ideas and diminishes the importance of others. Self-control is a significant component of inhibitory control, as this function helps individuals regulate their actions. Inhibitory control can ensure that individuals implement reason and logic when selecting their response. For instance, it may help students complete tasks and assignments in the classroom instead of talking to their friends.

Methods to assess executive functioning skills

Here are several procedures that parents, teachers, and guardians may use to assess executive functioning skills:

Test of Variables of Attention (TOVA)

Psychologists and health professionals typically use this procedure to test the executive functioning skills of toddlers. This test usually measures the ability of the child to focus on a repetitive task and control their natural impulses during an exciting task. During the TOVA test, psychologists typically ask children to press specific keys when letters appear. This shows their ability to follow instructions and focus on a task for a defined period.

Sorting assessments

Psychologists may use sorting activities to measure a child's ability to solve problems. Sorting assessments usually determine how children adapt to flexible rules and think creatively. For instance, psychologists may ask children to classify a group of cards using different criteria in a sorting assessment. They typically change the rules during this exercise to test children's flexibility. Psychologists usually monitor how long it takes the child to complete the task to understand their executive functioning abilities.

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Stroop Colour and Word Test

The Stroop Colour and Word Test (SCWT) typically determines the child's ability to analyze the rationality of actions and select an appropriate response. This test assesses the level of self-control that the child possesses. For instance, in this test, psychologists may present children with coloured cards with the wrong colour names. The test determines whether children can assign the correct colour to its appropriate name, regardless of its appearance. Children that can choose the correct colour name usually possess excellent executive functioning skills and inhibitory control.

Digit Span Test

The Digit Span Test assesses the working memory of the children. It determines how well children can retain information that they hear and apply them in appropriate situations. During the tests, psychologists typically read out numbers to the child and ask them to repeat the numbers in a similar or backward sequence. The spatial span test is also similar to the digital span test, as it examines children's ability to retain visual information.

Controlled Oral Word Association Test

This test typically determines the ability of children to use their problem-solving and creative thinking skills. During this test, psychologists may present letters or pictures to children and ask them to associate it with the name of an animal. This method tests their ability to generate ideas and adapt to new challenges. Psychologists analyze the children's response time to note the effectiveness of their executive functioning skills.

Behavioural checklists

A behavioural checklist can provide detailed insight into the executive functioning ability of children. These checklists typically appear as questions on the child's attention span, social skills, and behaviour patterns that parents, teachers, or guardians can answer. Psychologists use these answers to rate the child's executive functioning skills and compare them to ratings of other children. These checklists can identify behavioural disorders in children.

Causes of issues with executive functioning skills

Here are some reasons why children may struggle with executive functioning skills:

Brain development

Children typically have significant differences in the pace and level of their brain development. Parents and guardians that encourage learning games during the early stages of development typically help children develop their executive functioning skills faster. They can set healthy routines, divide tasks, and follow rules. If a parent doesn't encourage their children to use their executive functioning skills, they may struggle with these skills as adults. They may also develop an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) which is a condition that typically makes them restless and reduces their attention span.

Pre-existing health conditions

Pre-existing health conditions and brain injuries may contribute to a child's struggle with executive functioning skills. A brain injury that affects the brain's frontal lobes may hinder executive functioning skills in children. Mental health conditions may also cause or aggravate disabilities relating to executive functioning. For instance, learning disorders such as dyslexia or anxiety may affect children's attention span and behaviour patterns.

Environmental factors

External or environmental factors may cause issues relating to executive functioning in children. Stressful or traumatic situations or sudden changes in their environment might affect a child's ability to exhibit executive functioning skills. In these situations, therapy and support from guardians can improve their executive functioning skills and increase their capacity to retain information and follow instructions.

How to support children that have issues with executive functioning skills

Here are steps you can follow to support and assist children that struggle with executive functioning skills:

1. Establish routines

Creating stable routines helps children predict and organize their daily activities. This typically increases their productivity and reduces their stress level throughout the day. Performing tasks consistently may increase their confidence and improve their attention span. For instance, psychologists recommend setting a specific time for children to complete homework and supervising them while they conduct this activity.

2. Create planners

Psychologists and educational specialists encourage parents, teachers, and guardians to use planners and schedule tasks. They can also teach children how to use planners to remember upcoming tasks and assignments. These planners are specifically valuable for children that struggle to remember events and assignments. It can help them improve their memory and reduce their anxiety about upcoming events.

3. Use multiple approaches

It may be advisable to use varying learning strategies and educational tools to help children improve their executive functioning skills. Some students may learn more through visual tools or practical experiences. Using different approaches to explain concepts to children may also encourage them to be flexible in their thought processes.

4. Explain the reason for tasks

Explaining the importance of various tasks and activities before assigning them to children may encourage them to complete these tasks. Children that struggle with low attention span may benefit from these explanations as these activities typically seem draining and time-consuming. If children understand the rationale behind the tasks, they're more likely to remember to execute them.

5. Encourage rewards

An excellent way to encourage appropriate behaviour patterns and improve executive functioning skills in children is by using rewards. For instance, teachers may award gold stars to children that show significant improvement in relating concepts, thinking creatively, and following instructions. These external motivators also help children understand good behaviour patterns.

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