Executive functions are those cognitive processes that direct and organize behavior. These include planning, decision making, directed goal selection, self-inhibiting, self-monitoring, self-evaluating, cognitive flexibility, problem-solving, task initiation and working memory.
If the term executive function makes you think of a little CEO in the brain, that’s a great way to look at it. Executive function is in charge of ensuring tasks get done from the planning stages to the final product. When adolescence and young adults have issues with executive functioning, tasks that requires planning, organization, memory, time management and flexible thinking often are perceived as an unattainable challenge.
Developing executive functioning and self regulatory skills are crucial for mastering the developmental skills that are the work of his age group. This fosters maturity, good judgement and an ability to take on the responsibilities essential to becoming independent, responsible adults. It is also reflected in their abilities to have satisfying relationships with their families, community, work and study.
When Executive Functioning Skills Are Compromised or Undeveloped
Individuals with impaired executive functioning may not carry a psychiatric diagnosis, but it does have a negative impact on their lives. It can also be seen in adolescents and young adults with learning and attention deficit disorders.
Individuals with impaired executive functioning may find difficulty with:
- Making plans
- Keeping track of time
- Completing tasks on time
- Memorizing and retrieving information from memory
- Initiating activities or tasks
- Generating ideas
- Processing emotional or affective information (what something feels or looks like)
- Paying attention, staying focused
What Skills Does This Affect in an Adolescent/Young Adult?
Going a step further, problems with executive functioning may affect one or more key skills and behaviors listed below:
Impulse control – the ability to stop and think before acting
Emotional control – the ability to manage and process feelings
Flexibility – the ability to revise and implement new strategies when plans or conditions change
Planning and prioritizing – the ability to plan and set steps to achieve a goal and identify how to effectively order these changes
Working memory – the ability to record information and retrieve it from memory to complete a task
Self-monitoring – the ability to evaluate and monitor one’s performance
Organizing – the ability to create systems to keep track of materials and information
Task Initiation – the ability to know when to begin a task
Impaired Executive Function and Self-Regulation Skills Can Be Improved
People are not born with these skills. They are beginning in childhood. If, for whatever reasons, children do not get what they need from their environments, to develop their executive function and self-regulation skills, they may be delayed and or even severely impaired.
Fortunately, it is possible to foster the development of executive function. This may involve the therapeutic intervention and support of psychologists and life coaches to guide parents or the person with the problem by establishing routines, modeling social behavior, and both creating and maintaining supportive reliable relationships. It is important for children, adolescents and young adults to practice developing these skills through activities and social connection This provides the “scaffolding” that allows them practice necessary skills until they are mastered. Success will allow them to cope with stress, stay physically active and develop the skills necessary for independence and successful living as they mature into adulthood.