Executive Function: Calling “Air Traffic Control”! Come in!

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What is Executive Function?

The term Executive Function is heard everywhere as children and adults alike strive to be organized, multitask, and reach goals.  But what is it?  Are you born with it? Does it get better? Is it only a challenge for special needs, autism, ADHD, or most everyone?

You will recognize Executive Function at work in every aspect of your child’s life and your own.  All parents want children to be ready for school, not forget books or homework, find their shoes, get to the bus stop on time, and not get in trouble.  Teachers want students to follow multiple directions, not get distracted, wait for classmate’s to finish their turn, not call out, and put papers in the right place. Employers seek initiative, organization, teamwork and productivity.  These functions depend on Executive Function!

What are Executive Function Skills?

“Being able to focus, hold, and work with information in mind, filter distractions, and switch gears is like having an air traffic control system at a busy airport to manage the arrivals and departures of dozens of planes on multiple runways. In the brain, this air traffic control mechanism is called Executive Functioning, a group of skills that helps us to focus on multiple streams of information at the same time, and revise plans as necessary.” (The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard)

We are not born with these skills but we are born with the potential for developing them through supportive relationships, safe and organized environments, and experiences which practice these skills.  Working memory, mental flexibility and self-control predict success more than IQ.  Problems stem from neurological challenges when “air traffic control” is not guiding the right connections in the brain. Stress, illness or trauma also derail Executive Function. Difficulties are especially evident in autism and ADHD.

Building Foundations for Executive Function in Young Children

It begins with parents establishing flexible routines for daily living and supporting self-regulation through interactions tailored to the child’s developmental level. Some children need tasks broken down into steps, accompanied by visuals, schedules, checklists, or a Time Timer.  Environments need to be organized and clutter minimized, so children know where things are, pick up what they drop, and remember sequences related to daily routines.  Consistency and transition time are crucial since a sense of time is not well developed and preferred activities are clung to.  Most important is how the message is delivered.

But, how does the young child demonstrate Executive Function, self-control and flexibility when changes occur?   Does she notice what is missing during mealtime, solve problems, and substitute if needed? Does she remember what goes into her backpack and why, or get ready on time?  Are you always nudging?

Some guidelines.  Observe how many times a day you prompt your child to do things he already knows. Is this a pattern? Notice how you prompt and tone, e.g., from across the room, in middle of play, without explaining why it is important, or what follows, not allow time for transitions.  Alert your need for attention, communicate face to face, , and follow through.  Discuss plan in advance, use a picture schedule, be sure your child understands, review aloud and wait.  He may need more time to organize a response than you do.  Use cues, e.g., This was fun, but what a mess!”, add ritual songs for clean up, and add support – hand toy to put away, offer basket to drop things into, point to the floor. Recognize feelings without escalating and practice.  

When the next task is fun, like taking a bath, going to the pool, roughhousing with daddy, or snack time, executive function come zooming in, activated by relationships and pleasure.  These are not necessary to prompt!  Encourage your child to “get ready” instead.  If he loves baths, he will run to the tub and start undressing.  Wait until he indicates what is next! If Teddy Bear is on the chair, see if she notices and searches.  “Where are you? ”  Then cuddle together!  Allow time to recognize problems and execute solutions.  When grounded in pleasurable experiences, the child develops Executive Function and will do more of the work, even help you! Don’t get stuck in routines either; changes encourage flexibility.  These opportunities strengthen competence and self-esteem.

It is critical to understand your child’s unique profile to treat underlying challenges.  A child may be hypersensitive and/or under-reactive to sensations such as sounds, sights, movement.  Poor coordination and manipulative skills, dyspraxia (difficulty initiating ideas, planning the steps and carrying it out), poor language comprehension, derails EFs.  A child “lost in space” with visual spatial difficulties is especially challenged and a short fuse and anxiety derail self-regulation. Pursue  evaluation to understand the meaning of your child’s behavior, what is getting in the way,  how he learns, feels, and socializes to find the best ways to intervene at home and at school.

One more thing, Floortime!

Floortime looks just like “play”, where caregivers follow the child’s interests and expand back and forth interactions and thinking.  Like play, it is fun and strengthens relating, initiative and spontaneity, while symbolizing emotions.  

Floortime ideally promotes executive function.  Here’s how! During pretend play,  encourage child to create and plan the idea, find the toys or props needed, tell where the story begins and what will happen next, and let him assign the roles.  Floortime practice, supports thinking on your feet, handling surprises, controlling impulses, reasoning, and theory of mind.  Floortime promotes expressive/receptive language,  visual spatial motor abilities to set up, reading affect cues, and organizing stories with a beginning, middle and end..  Most important, make your child the director, and practice Floortime frequently.   Prepare your child to be the Air Traffic Controller!