Reframing How We Think about Executive Function Skills

Reframing How We Think about Executive Function Skills

Throughout this past year COVID-19 and executive function skills have had very real, visible and significant impacts on our lives. While everyone is aware of the significant impact that COVID-19 has had on our lives, not everyone is as aware of the significant role and impact that executive function skills have had on each and every one of our daily lives. While executive function skills have always been needed, this past year of COVID-19 has highlighted the necessity of and critical role that executive function skills play  in the daily lives of every one of us. Yes, I said every one of us! 

During this time when working and having school remotely has been the new norm, having strong executive function skills has been critical and I might argue, directly correlated to one’s success. These skills are critical to being able to self-regulate, self-direct, and have goal directed behavior. Unfortunately not everyone, including those without any diagnosis of ADHD or other learning disability were not equipped with strong enough skills. Those who rode the wave and adjusted have been the lucky ones.  Not everyone was as lucky, but from these kinds of experiences, we can learn; we can grow and we can change our approach, our systems, and our framework  to improve the experience of others going forward..  

Executive function skills are the cognitive skills used and required by everyone to plan, stay organized, pay attention and focus, be motivated, initiate tasks, remember things, adapt and be flexible, prioritize, complete tasks, make decisions, understand time, regulate our emotions; in effect, they are the skills that everyone needs to use to get through each day, from getting up in the morning, to getting to appointments/class/work on time, to checking email, to handing in assignments, to knowing what to have for dinner, and even to being able to understand what we read. Without these skills it is nearly impossible to meet any kind of goal no matter how much you might want to or try. 

For those of us with strong executive function skills, it is hard to imagine how anyone could not have or at a minimum not want to have these skills much less not have been able to learn these skills. These skills seem natural, easy, second nature. At some point in life, it simply became what we did because a teacher or a parent or a friend told us to do something and it made sense and was helpful. Over time, we adopted those strategies and skills because we realized that it made life easier and helped us achieve our goals; however, these skills are not just something that everyone learns easily or readily by someone suggesting that they do something or showing them once or twice how to do it. 

There are a variety of reasons why someone might have more difficulty learning executive function skills. We are familiar with a number of diagnoses that are associated with people having difficulty with executive function skills: ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, a variety of learning disabilities. For each of these diagnoses, the brain is involved in some way and so it may not be surprising that executive function skills also have their origins in our brains. In fact, executive function skills involve multiple parts of the brain, but they all originate in the prefrontal or the frontal cortex. From these cortexes, connections are made to other parts of the brain depending on the specific executive function skill involved. Effective use of executive function skills require these connections, or neural circuitry to be intact and functioning effectively and efficiently. When the circuitry breaks down, executive function skills also break down and challenges arise for the individual. Most often these challenges are also accompanied by  frustration and disappointment because there is no visible or tangible explanation for why they couldn’t do what they wanted to do. The only logical explanation at first glance is that the person is not trying hard enough, is lazy, is not motivated, or any other number of explanations that place blame on the person themselves. 

But, what if we could take a step back and think about these executive function skills in a different way, as being related to impaired neurobiological circuitry, instead of being rooted in  effort, willpower, and motivation. If we could do that, then we could have a completely different approach to and understanding of a person and their use of executive function skills. Instead of assuming that all people choose whether or not to use executive function skills and that all people easily and readily learn executive function skills by age 13, then we could take an approach, like the coaches at EEC take, that is similar to how we approach other cognitive skills such as reading, writing, math, science, foreign languages, etc. 

Executive function skills are similar to all of these other skills, and in order for any of these skills to develop, the brain has to make connections and those connections have to be strengthened over time until the connections are so solid that the skill becomes second nature. In the same way that reading, writing, and math skills don’t just develop by chance for all people, executive function skills don’t always develop by chance either; most often, they require instruction, practice, repetition, and patience while they are being developed.  

With all of these other skills, however, when people have difficulty we don’t blame them for being lazy, unmotivated, or not trying hard enough to learn; we are patient; we provide explicit instruction; we provide opportunity for repetition and remediation; we hire tutors. We also provide opportunities to try these skills without fear of failure and without shame when they don’t quite get it right as they are working to learn these skills. We encourage; we reinforce; we advise and we celebrate mini-successes. Is it possible to take a similar approach with executive function skills? I think that it is critical that we do. It is time for us to reframe how we think about executive function skills and the impact that neurobiology has on how each individual acquires these life impacting skills, and if we do it well, and if we are able to give people the support and instruction that their brains require, people won’t just be helped to do better with remote work and learning, they will be helped in developing the most important skills of their life that will result in them have organized, focused, self-regulated, and goal-directed lives.