Executive Function

Aug 16, 2016

It’s an interesting term, Executive Function, but it does not refer to how a business person gets along. Executive function refers to the higher level skills the brain performs in order to change your own behavior. This is the part of the brain that helps us behave appropriately in a variety of situations, that helps us solve the everyday problems of our lives, that helps us get along with others. It’s important to be able to sit and wait your turn, to be able to pay attention to and follow directions, and to be able to figure out what went wrong when you made a mistake and figure out how to do it better instead of getting angry and too frustrated to continue. These are the skills that provide the cornerstone of our independence.

Many of our kids are so caught up in their moment-to-moment issues, such as difficulty with sensory processing, learning to communicate or trying to keep up developmentally, that they do not get the chance to work on these skills. Or maybe they are spending more time in front of the TV or other screen devices than they are socializing with other children. Pediatric professionals are recognizing that children are needing help in gaining executive function skills. Any underlying issues must be recognized and addressed as in the case of sensory processing disorder, hypotonia, autism, and coordination issues, but these do not need to be fully resolved in order to work on executive functioning. A full evaluation will reveal these other issues. It is important to keep in mind typical child development and to remember that many behaviors do not fully develop until later due to the timeline of brain development. In other words, we cannot expect an eight year old to have the behavior of a nineteen year old.

A child who is having trouble with executive functions will often let their emotions rule their behavior. This child may be impulsive, emotional, aggressive or seemingly helpless. They often need adults or other children to intervene and help them work through a problem. A good example is learning to share with others or following a simple recipe, for an older child. Many of these executive functions are learned during play and social situations. This is a good argument for the importance of recess and multisensory learning versus solely pencil/paper teach-to-the-test instruction. Free unstructured play with other children, and alone time as well, is important to learn executive functioning. Controlling impulses is one of the most important skills a child learns. It will set him up for all of his future learning and social experiences.

At The Children’s Therapy Center, Inc., we work on these higher level skills as the child is ready. We practice what is known as a “child directed” or “child centered” approach where we follow the child’s lead at the same time guiding and supporting her to work on areas that are challenging. With the therapist by her side, she can feel safe to address these areas that she may otherwise avoid. The therapist provides a model of behavior and gently corrects and guides the child to work through problems using appropriate behaviors. Consistency is key, and your therapist will let you know of strategies to carry over at home.

One of the most crucial things is to not discourage your child, to help him learn ways to deal with everyday challenges. You can model positive behavior remembering that your child learns so much of his behavior from how you yourself respond to problems. You can also praise your child for good choices, for handling a problem in a more mature manner. It takes awhile for children to learn new skills, but your patience and consistency will help your child be able to learn those skills needed. This is one of the best gifts a family can give to a child to help him grow into a confident independently functioning member of society.

Nancy E.A. Weiss, MOT, OTR/L

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