Have you ever wondered why your child lacks the same “internal manager” you have? Why he (or she) struggles to stay on track with everyday tasks, like doing homework or chores? Why he sometimes has difficulty completing even purely voluntary projects? You may know that he behaves this way because his brain isn’t yet fully developed, but many parents don’t understand specifically which skills control the ability to plan, organize, and execute tasks. Furthermore, most parents aren’t sure how much of this kind of behaviour is normal and what kind of developmental trajectory it should follow.
Executive Functions: The Brain’s Control Centre
Executive functions are shaped primarily by the activity of the frontal lobe. This area of the brain acts as a kind of control centre that directs mental resources towards each step of carrying out a complex task. As such, executive function skills govern attention, working memory, foresight and hindsight, time management (including estimating how long tasks will take to complete), and planning sequential actions. They’re also integral to managing impulses and emotions; they create better self-awareness and help us identify risks. Executive function skills allow us to think before we act, use our past experiences to respond appropriately to current situations, and tune out distractions.
Poor executive function skills can lead children to, for example, repeatedly delay doing a school project because they truly believe that it won’t take them long to complete it. They’re unable to realistically estimate how much time each step in the project will take to complete. Kids with executive function deficits typically also have a hard time following the rules, and they exhibit poor stress tolerance. (These two things in combination can make them appear defiant and explosive.) They are more likely to quit tasks before they complete them owing to feelings of frustration or boredom, too.
If you have ever looked after a three-year-old, then you know all of the above behaviours are a perfectly normal part of development. That’s why small children need help tying their shoes, getting dressed, and doing other “simple” things. Otherwise, when they aren’t successful after their second or third attempt to get their arms through their sleeves, they’ll probably give up—and have a good cry.
You may have guessed, too, that the frontal lobe tends to develop relatively slowly and unevenly. Even an 18-year-old will sometimes appear impulsive and moody to an older adult because they’re still experiencing some mild deficits in this area. (Incredibly, the human brain remains in a state of active development until we reach about age 25.) Moreover, preteens and teens can appear very unstable in their level of maturity because their executive function skills can vary from one day to the next, depending on how tired, hungry, or overwhelmed they are. Where executive function deficits become problematic is when they aren’t consistent with age-appropriate behaviour. When a seven-year-old can’t tie his shoes without help, for example, or an 18-year-old still can’t estimate how long his homework will take, then it’s likely that there’s a deeper issue at play.
10 Signs Your Child Has Executive Functioning Problems
- Your child is prone to risk-taking behaviour. He often jumps headlong into situations without thinking them through or identifying possible consequences.
- Your older child (preteen or teen) struggles to complete tasks that involve multiple steps. He becomes overwhelmed quickly by large jobs, even outside an academic setting. For example, when asked to clean up a very messy room, he can’t figure out where to start (and gets frustrated before he even begins).
- Your child has a hard time setting goals, initiating tasks, and completing tasks. He may have lots of dreams and ideas, but he seldom translates them into reality.
- Your child is hypersensitive to perceived criticism. He often focuses so strongly on his emotions when receiving feedback that he overlooks valuable information.
- Your child has a hard time processing verbal information, e.g., he can’t seem to take detailed notes in class and you often have to repeat verbal instructions to him multiple times.
- Your child is much more disorganized than his same-age peers or siblings, and he frequently forgets things.
- Your child constantly “leaves things until the last minute,” no matter how often you warn him not to do so.
- Your child demonstrates rigid thinking. He has a hard time adapting to changing situations or revising plans without a great deal of advanced notice.
- Your older child frequently “melts down” or acts out, completely overcome by his emotions.
- Your older child isn’t always aware of his needs or the needs of others. He struggles to empathize and can appear selfish at times.
What Causes Delays in the Development of Executive Function Skills?
A number of different developmental disorders and learning disabilities can interrupt the normal development of executive function skills. ADHD is one of the most common, and best-known, causes of executive function deficits. However, other forms of neurodivergence, such as Autism, can also cause varying degrees of impairment in this area. Indeed, even some kids who don’t have any identifiable disorder experience delays in the development of executive functions.
As a parent, it can be very difficult to tell whether your child is having difficulties or if he’s simply behaving in an age-appropriate way. In general, if you have concerns about your child’s level of functioning, it’s a good idea to begin by talking to his teachers. If he has social or academic issues that might be related to poor executive functioning, your child’s teachers will probably already be aware of the problem. Likewise, speaking to your child’s teachers can secure him the extra academic support he needs while you investigate the root cause of his deficits.
Finally, you should have your child undergo a comprehensive psycho-educational assessment. Such assessments not only help clinicians make an accurate diagnosis of learning disabilities like ADHD, they provide detailed information about your child’s individual strengths and weaknesses. By addressing your child’s weaknesses early on, you can help him “remap” his brain and overcome his difficulties with executive functioning.