executive function | exq

I often say, practicing good Executive Function skills is like taking a daily shower. “No one compliments you for looking clean and smelling fresh, but it’s guaranteed that everyone will notice or even comment if one day you do smell bad.” In that vein, people are typically complimentary of those who are organized, goal-oriented, consistent, reliable, or independent. It’s when we  have to ‘fix’ someone else’s faux pas and anticipate their mismanagement that we notice.

In my professional career as a Speech-Language Pathlogist, I have noticed that some individuals are naturally talented in the arena of being organized, methodical, focused, goal-oriented, or self-motivated while others lack these intuitive abilities appearing to be less reliable, less driven, or simply put, unable to see things through.

For example, in most schools a popular way to identify the intellectually endowed is to look at their dean’s list standings, national merit scholarships, or winners of awards in mathematical excellence. However, contrary to conventional wisdom, not all of these students have strong Executive Function skills. When we look deeper, even students who do well in school  sometimes struggle with maintaining positive daily habits, procedural knowledge, impulse control, a well-balanced sense of priorities, the ability to self-regulate, and the ability to see the big-picture.

Colloquial wisdom often interprets presence of well developed Executive Fucntion as strong common sense. Such individuals with strong common sense operate with a strong presence of mind, think on their feet, possess soft skills that they take advantage of, and they are “good with people.” It is more of a problem when the skills are missing. I have heard parents decsribe their children who can’t seem to “find their way out of a paperbag.” The most critical impact of a lack of common sense is that the child and adult are unable to solve personal problems with prudency.

Individuals with the type of Executive Function challenges that I am referring to do not just reside in our schools. They can be college bound, in the work force, or even adults. Once again, being smart does not automatically guarantee good Executive Functioning ability.

Here are some guiding questions that you can ask to spot Executive Function challenges:

  1. How inattentive is this individual who either interrupts a lot or is interrupted easily?
  2. How effective is this individual with completing boring and mundane tasks (without compromising quality or outcomes)?
  3. How easy is it to persuade this individual to stop their current engagement and to shift focus onto something new?
  4. How quickly does this individual jump into tasks with impending deadlines?
  5. How well does this individual stop himself from wandering aimlessly through time and jumping from one irrelevant thing to another?
  6. How does this individual employ structure when none exists?
  7. How does this individual work under ambiguous circumstances when instructions are provided but unclear, and yet the anticipation is such that a successful outcome is expected?
  8. How well is this individual’s action connected to bigger life goals or is she missing the forest for the trees?
  9. How anxious and frustrated does this individual feel about their overall personal competence which does not contribute to their improved performance or prevention of repetitious mistakes?
  10. How challenging is it to influence this individual by being able to persuade him to inculcate, advise, and change the course of his actions?

As you can see, being able to understand complex ideas, being able to retain vast knowledge in one’s memory, and having set abilities or talent alone will not guarantee an individual will become accomplished. Rather self-actualization by using talents and abilities to guide one’s own success with a self-driven pace is the goal of a strong Executive Function skills practice.

Instead of writing off common sense as something that emerges through life-experience and personal wisdom, let’s create specific actionable teaching and parenting strategies to propel students to self-correct with focus and intention—it’s common sense!