Efficient executive functioning is critical to all human behaviors. Thousands of articles and books have been written about this set of brain-based skills. Noted EF/ADHD expert Thomas Brown, Ph.D., likens executive functioning to being the conductor of an orchestra. Researchers at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University have compared EF to the air-traffic control system in a busy airport. Brain scientists agree that strong working memory, self-control, or self-regulation, and the ability to maintain and shift attention are the foundation upon which academic and social success is built. Well-developed executive functioning skills unlock human potential; deficits in EF prevent us from living up to our personal best.
Nature or Nurture?
A baby’s brain development begins to happen before it is born, shaped by his parents’ genes, by the physical and mental health and nutrition of its mother, and by exposure to neurotoxic chemicals and loud noises. Children are not born with EF skills — the ability to control impulses, make plans, and stay focused. But they are born with the potential to develop these abilities. Some young children are genetically wired in a way that makes learning EF skills more challenging, and kids with ADHD tend to be in that group.
Regardless of the amount of EF potential a child has (and this is not something that we know how to measure yet), the degree to which all children develop these abilities depends on the nature and quality of the experiences they have during infancy, throughout childhood, and into adolescence.
Children who grow up in home and school environments that nurture their ability to control impulses, make plans, remember things, and stay focused tend to enjoy healthier, happier lives. Children who are born into chaotic, unsafe, unpredictable environments, or are exposed to traumatic events that impact the development of neural circuitry early in life, may develop brains with inefficient executive function centers. Their brains become wired for self-protection, and they are always on high alert for danger. They are poor planners and problem-solvers who lack the confidence that comes from successful interactions with books, ideas, tasks, and people.
In humans, the brain regions and circuits that control executive functions have connections to the parts of the brain that determine how humans respond to fearful events and to stress. It’s impossible to think about the development of executive functions without considering the emotional responses of a child who is faced with tasks that require these skills. Emotions and cognition are inexorably linked.
What Weak EF Looks Like
Researchers acknowledge that there is no commonly used, single definition of EF. But if you’re reading this article, you probably know and love a kid whose potential is thwarted by poor executive functioning. Do you recognize that child in the following paragraphs?
Children who have weak EF find it hard to carry out tasks that have multiple steps or complex rules. Have you ever been frustrated by seeing your son or daughter look like you spoke to him or her in a foreign tongue? “You need to clean up your room, do your English homework, and take a shower before you go to bed.” If you are a teacher, are you surprised that some kids can’t follow through when you say: “Before you close your notebook, write down tonight’s homework in the section with the green tab.”
Kids with weak EF have a hard time focusing their attention or “shifting attentional gears.” They find it hard to “stop what you’re doing for a minute, and look up here at the board.” They can’t pay attention to one thing while not paying attention to other things (sights and sounds) around them. (“Hey, the furnace just kicked in! Math? What math?”) Kids with inefficient EF systems find it hard to hold a rule or different rules in mind while they carry out several tasks. (“Compute all the functions within the parentheses, and then carry out the operations indicated in this math equation.”) They can’t take something learned in one situation and apply it to another.