Within the past 20-30 years the importance of a concept known as Executive Function (Self Regulation) has become more recognized and talked about in the neurosciences, psychology, education and even talks on parenting. In fact, based on my experience working with people (children, adolescents, young adults, and adults) it has become apparent to me that this group of brain functions is as or more predictive, in many instances, of success in life than is one’s intellectual ability. It has become apparent that one’s ability to support and develop the growth of this group of brain functions is crucial to managing the growing complexity of the world around us whether we are engaged in parenting, teaching, negotiating social relationships, or just attempting to manage our day-to-day activities. The better one understands both what Executive function is, how it supports or limits our success, as well as what we can do to improve on our own self regulatory functions the more powerful we become in meeting the goals we are trying to achieve in life. In short understanding this concept and the impact these functions have on living life is a major part of learning to live a more contented life.
What the heck are Executive Functions? They have been described in many ways but one of my favorites is that the Executive Functions are like the conductor of the orchestra. The job of executive functions is to coordinate/conduct the various sections and musicians who compose those sections (brain abilities and skills) in an effort to identify and solve problems that we are confronted with on a daily basis. Their job is to create a routine that we can automatically follow to solve problems that reoccur on a regular basis like making your way to school or work on the same route each day or to help us solve novel problems that we encounter as we live our lives. Once, that activity has become routine, your executive system, is less involved in managing that activity, until you are forced to take a different route due to some unusual condition in your world, which then causes them to kick back in again.
This set of brain functions has always existed but has become more critical to our ability to negotiate our world today than ever before. This trend appears to be accelerating as we move well into what has been called the Information Age. We now live in an age where we are being bombarded with more information and access to more information that at any time in human history. The world and the demands of the world on us, i.e., the changes in technology that are occurring faster and faster, are demanding that we adapt more quickly than at any time in human history. It is dealing with novelty or newness that places the most demand on executive function and it is where we run in to trouble if our self regulatory functions are weak. So, while this area of cognitive function has always been important, the development of these functions is becoming crucial to one’s ability to succeed in life.
It is important to note that executive function is based in our genetics and how it is that our brain forms, or wires itself together, however, we also know that our experience with the world around us can either support or impede the development of these brain functions in individuals. We are all born with a set of strengths and weaknesses in this area of brain function, but how one interacts with their environment, the information that one is exposed to , and the manner in which one is exposed to that information has a tremendous impact on the developmental trajectory of these functions. When you are born with significant weaknesses in this area, or experience environmental traumas that impede the development of these functions, one begins to experience problems negotiating even the simplest of life’s challenges. Examples would include the child who can’t gather themselves to follow a morning routine to go to school. The adult who is constantly late to meetings and can’t manage their time and energy to be able to complete the tasks that either they or others expect of them. The older adult who begins to become “forgetful” or begins losing the ability to solve a simple problem that was once seemingly effortless for them. These are all examples of weaknesses in this area of cognitive ability.
It is also important to note that these functions follow a developmental trajectory that is both similar to others but unique for each person. So we are not born with fully developed self regulation, rather it develops over time as the brain matures. In fact, it has become more recently known that these functions do not fully mature until one’s mid 30’s. Their progression and the neurobiological reasons underlying this progression are for another day or for those with a real interest to explore. Needless to say there is hope that one can continue to improve these functions and it is believed that with the right support children can in fact increase the trajectory of their development. What is also important to note is that the development of these functions can also be interfered with making it less likely that a child will reach their full potential in this area of critical brain function. One of the things we know is that large amounts of stress interfere both with the development of these functions as well as one’s ability to deploy these functions in situations where they are demanded by the world around us.
So why are they so important for parents to understand? The world that your child is attempting to manage is filled with novel experiences that children must learn to negotiate in order to succeed. Those challenges range from how to organize, create a plan, and execute the plan to get up and be ready to leave for school on time and be in the right place to be picked up or delivered to school to the challenge of learning novel information that is required to succeed in academic environments. In fact, when one is moving through the educational process, you are confronted with innumerable opportunities for your executive function to support your ability to learn and produce the information required for success in school. If yours are adequately developed than you move through these challenges relatively easily. If yours are poorly developed, problems began to appear at every turn and your ability to succeed at meeting others expectations becomes markedly diminished despite your best efforts, desires, and intentions to try to meet those expectations.
If as a parent, you move from believing that your child is just not trying hard enough, is lazy, doesn’t care enough, is just trying to defy me and make my life miserable to a place where you stop, take a deep breath and think maybe, just maybe what I am asking them to do the way I am asking them to do it is not possible for them, given the weakness within their self regulatory system (Rule #4). Perhaps if I began to understand what these critical brain functions do and how they impact both my child’s and my own ability to negotiate the world, I might be able to ask my child to do what I would like in a way that allows them to succeed. A major shift in our parenting paradigm, which if you can make the change in thinking will allow you to become a far more powerful parent, by which I mean, more able to have your children get what needs to be done rather than engaging in arguments, power struggles, etc. that tend to end badly. Beginning to think like this is like seeing a fire burning (child unable to comply or perform) and making the decision to either throw gasoline on the fire (yelling, scolding, berating, punishing, etc.) or making the choice to use water (developing an understanding of self regulatory functions and developing effective parenting strategies to intervene) to manage the fire. Unfortunately, much of what many of us as parents learned was the former as the later has only become well understood in the last 20-30 years and is just beginning to be shared with parents as you engage in one of the most if not the most difficult and challenging job of your life: raising a child to become a healthy, well adjusted, independent adult.
When seeking help from a professional for you or your child as you negotiate your way through parenting, be sure that the person you choose has a clear understanding of this area of brain or cognitive function in order to provide you with more effective help for both you and your child.
Should you want more information and resources on this subject, please both look under the Resource tab on this web site for Executive Function, for more in depth information about the components of the self regulatory system. As I have time I will be writing more about this subject in future posts.