Introduction to Executive Functioning for Parents

What is executive functioning?

Executive functioning is a hot topic right now and providers who know how to work with executive dysfunction are in high demand. But what does that even mean? If you break down the term executive functioning into its parts, you can deduce that it refers to functions or abilities that are in control. Executive functioning is an umbrella term for the “boss” in your brain that helps you engage in any goal-directed behavior. Executive functions include anything that gets a person from wanting to do something to actually getting it done including planning, organizing, getting started (initiating), ordering, prioritizing, making decisions, self-monitoring, managing time, sustaining attention, controlling impulses, regulating emotions, checking for mistakes, adjusting to changes, and being self-aware. These important and wide-reaching skills are grouped together, in part, because they are all located in the same part of the brain—the foremost part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex.

Executive Functioning in Academics

Research shows that executive functioning is a better predictor of academic success than IQ. Students with better executive functioning skills get better grades on report cards, have higher GPAs, score higher on achievement tests and college admissions tests, and gain admission to selective high schools and colleges at a higher rate. Students with stronger executive functioning have better attendance, watch less television, and begin working on long-term assignments earlier in the project’s timeline.  A survey of college students found that nearly 90% of students said that time management was the most challenging aspect of college life and that lack of organizational skills was their primary problem to getting better grades. 

Students with executive functioning weaknesses are often labeled as “lazy” or “oppositional” when in reality they are overwhelmed, underreported, and discouraged. Students who have poor executive functioning are at higher risk of dropping out of school, using drugs, and participating in criminal activities. Executive functioning skills related to self-regulation predict development emotionally and academically. 

Executive Functioning Outside of School

Outside of academia, executive functioning plays a crucial role in job performance, relationships, and independent living. Strong executive functioning skills contribute to being on time to work, meeting deadlines, organizing information, keeping a tidy workspace, managing stress, and navigating relationships with co-workers and managers. Executive functioning skills support strong relationships because individuals are more likely to follow through with their commitments, regulate their emotions, resist impulses in favor of long-term goals, and take the perspective of others. Recent studies suggest that individuals with better executive functioning are less likely to get divorced in their 30’s. Executive functions are crucial to independent living, as well. They help individuals pay their bills on time, budget, keep their homes organized, cook safely, and manage risk. Declines in executive functioning in older adults can be a sign of dementia onset and are often correlated with needing more support with everyday living. 

How Parents Can Support Development of Executive Functioning at Home

Development of executive functioning is a natural process for most children. The parts of the brain associated with executive functioning continue to develop through adolescence and into early adulthood (mid-twenties). As such, parents should know that there are plenty of opportunities for teaching throughout childhood.

Parents can start by teaching their children to have a growth mindset – the belief that intelligence, skills, and qualities grow through effort. Talk about the brain, praise you’re the effort your child makes, and accept mistakes as learning opportunities. When your child is struggling with something, it is important to manage your own worries and remember that their struggles do not mean you are failing as a parent. “Fear-based parenting interferes with [your] ability to help them become successful, condiment, self-directed individuals,” says Michael Delman. 

As for executive functioning specific skills, we all learn by seeing and your child is no different. Model things like planning, organizing, and being flexible when changes pop up. You can narrate what you are doing – “I am putting my keys in the key holder and my wallet in the closet, so I know where they are.”

Parents can scaffold skills by adapting tasks to their child’s current skill level and breaking bigger tasks into smaller steps. Prompt your child before a problem occurs and be quick to praise them when they follow through. Over time, you can decrease your support but encourage intentional moments for reflection. Ask your child what went well, what could be better, and what ideas they have for improvement.