Who among us hasn't had trouble composing that first sentence in a paper or an important letter? It's not easy, but many of us do eventually get past the mental impasse and summon the complex planning and organizing necessary to write term papers, run work projects, even plan a renovation of a kitchen or separate dark-colored laundry from light. Executive function is an imposing name for a group of essential mental tasks, including planning, strategizing, organizing, setting goals, and paying attention to the important details, that will help to achieve those goals. Executive function is what gets us down to business even when we'd rather just hang out.
Experts often ponder the relationship between executive function and theory of mind. At the very least, theory of mind involves two essential skills — the ability to reflect about one's own thoughts and feelings, and the ability to tune into the feelings and expectations of others.
When does executive function develop?
As with theory of mind, some combination of genes and life experience results in the ultimate development of the ability to organize our thoughts and plan, allowing us to achieve our goals. Executive function begins to develop in infancy. Watch a baby discovering that kicking her legs will make the characters on her mobile spin around. Once she recognizes the cause-and-effect relationship between leg-kicking and mobile action, she will revel in making it happen. She is in charge, having learned how to keep an idea ("kick to move mobile") in mind while getting it done.
What happens when kids don't have good executive function?
In certain disorders such as autism and ADHD, executive function is typically impaired. In fact, much of what we call ADHD may be, in a broader sense, poor executive function. Impaired executive function is also involved in behavioral disorders, particularly those which include limited self-control, addiction, lack of appropriate restraint, failure to think ahead about future consequences.
But many children (and adults) who fail for no apparent reason, including some who score high on intelligence tests, may also lack executive function. In short, there is no solid planning for the future without good executive function. And without good executive function, there is little incentive to do today's boring tasks, such as memorizing and studying for the sake of potential future rewards.
How can I help my child improve his skills?
Depending on the causes of distractibility and other possible executive function impairments, there are ways to help children "get their acts together." If, as is often the case, attention deficits are at the root of the problem, experts begin by addressing attention issues. In a step-by-step way, educators and tutors often help with time management — checklists, due dates, planners, and to-do lists. Enforcing regularly scheduled cleanup times in order to keep work space organized is useful. Some kids need patient, encouraging instruction in the process of "clearing the decks" in order to do a project from beginning to end. If your child struggles constantly with organization and planning tasks, talk to his teacher or the school psychologist about how best to help him.
Even among children of the same age or grade, brains mature physically at differing rates. Working with each child where she is, allowing gradual success and mastery to win the day, is the best approach, however long it takes. Take your lead from the patient professionals working with your child. Learn what the world and its challenges look like through her eyes. While it takes time and infinite patience, many children have overcome the obstacle of impaired executive function and eventually succeeded in school.