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What are Executive Function Skills anyway?



In the last number of months you would have heard me say on newsletters, podcasts and over coffee:  “Few things would change the story of our Wonderfully Wired kids more than developing their Executive Function skills.” 


I’ve related it to how they cope in class, how it affects social skills and to their sense of autonomy and competency and their ability to advocate for themselves.

This week someone on the Wonderfully Wired staff casually asked: What are Executive Function skills anyway?


So let’s start there:  


The Pre Frontal Cortex  is the Branch Manager of the brain and when it effectively manages the different departments, productivity is maximised:  jobs get done and responsibilities are met.


 For your child those jobs and responsibilities might look like getting out of bed, getting dressed and leaving for school with an accurately packed bag and a cool demeanour. (And perhaps adjusting to the change of plans when the car doesn’t start)


Good Executive functioning  is responsible for self-awareness and emotional regulation, for holding  a number of things in mind while we do complex task , for controlling inhibitions and impulses and thinking flexibly.


When Executive Function is good it’s because the  PFC is being a good manager and the different departments can apply the necessary Executive Function skills toward meeting their different responsibilities.  


These skills include the ability to


•• Focus attention

•sustain attention

•initiate tasks

•manage time

•be organised

•work toward a goal

•think about thinking 

•plan 

•prioritise

•remember and learn from the past

•integrate thought processes

•be self aware 

•regulate the body with the mind

•regulate emotions

•adapt to new situations or changes 

•hold things in mind


One of the biggest and most game changing discoveries we have made in neuroscience is the proof that Wonderfully Wired children are not lazy or wilfully disobedient: They have lagging Executive functioning skills.


Victoria Bagnall of Connections in Mind explains that ALL PEOPLE struggle with executive functioning - Not only Wonderfully Wired people!  (Visit http://connectionsinmind.com to do a EF profile of your own). Each one of us have what Victoria calls a unique Executive Function fingerprint.  


We might be brilliant at cognitive flexibility and adjusting when plans change but struggle to be organised and tidy. Or we might struggle to hold many ideas in mind but be very good at sustaining effort toward a goal. Any lagging skills are merely that, not character flaws.


Wonderfully Wired Profiles DO not LOOK THE SAME for all kids within a particular diagnosis and EF skills challenges can be unique (and often trans-diagnostic) combinations  but we do see some patterns.


Wonderfully wired autistic thinkers typically struggle with Cognitive Flexibility.  Changing plans and a lack of predictability gets in the way of them ‘getting the job done’ in a regulated way.


Wonderfully Wired kids with ADHD often struggle with impulse control and  response inhibition. The skills they need practice and coaching in might include sustaining attention, regulating emotions, taking turns or keeping from interrupting.


Wonderfully Wired kids with dyslexia often have poor working memories:  That is, they struggle to hold many things in their mental desk space at once.  Significant research indicates a link between phonological processing and working memory:  These readers don’t struggle to read, they struggle to hold in mind and manipulate the many elements involved to get what’s on the paper into the mind and visa versa.  


For all Wonderfully Wired kids self-awareness and metacognition must be developed first by what Dan Siegel calls MINDSIGHT.  We pay attention to the part of our brains that needs growth and with practice we grow new skills.  


Victoria and I share a dream that this kind of intentional practicing and growing of EF skills will become embedded in the classroom and part of mainstream school.In the meantime the option of  One to One coaching of EF skills exist. 

Victoria explains that the coach helps the child be motivated to learn skills that are difficult and trust the brain science that new skills can be learnt through practice. Then the coach helps embed that skill by encouraging the sixty odd iterations of practice till a new pathway in the brain makes a new skill possible.



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