Executive function skills: Why they matter and how they help

November 2021
Rina Rodak, Milena Romalis and Laura Heeringa

Lost paperwork. The panicked hunt for a missing device as the bus pulls up. Forgotten assignments being scribbled out madly the night before they’re due. Laundry piling up and take-out for dinner again because there are no groceries in the fridge. Frustrated yelling matches over piles of junk, undone chores and calendar fails.

What’s the common theme behind all these scenarios? Three words: executive function skills.
Executive function (EF) and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks. They help us get organized in space and time, see what’s coming next, and decide what action to take to get there. 
Psychologists have been studying EF for decades, but recently it has become something of a buzzword in the world of education and mental health—for good reason. Assessments of EF are the single biggest indicator of academic, professional and personal success, and it’s hardly surprising; these skills underpin our efficacy in every area of life, at home, school, work and in our primary relationships. EF skills control things like impulsivity, cognitive flexibility, emotional regulation, task initiation and completion, working memory, planning and organization, and attention and focus. 
There are many complex reasons why we might be seeing such a sharp rise in EF challenges in the past decade. Our reliance on electronic communications and maybe-not-so-smartphones means that we no longer have to exercise the part of our brain that retains and recalls information. Sensory input comes at us relentlessly from every angle; young brains developing in a culture of flashy 15-second sound bites mean that our attention spans are being trained to become progressively shorter, while our brains become increasingly reliant on the dopamine hit we get from the shiny, the new, and the instantly gratifying. We’re being re-wired at a cellular level by external stimuli. As a culture, it feels like we are simultaneously busier and less effective than ever.
People managing ADHD face particular EF challenges due to lowered activity in the areas of the brain that control these functions. Sometimes, ADHD-related EF deficits can be treated with stimulant medication that “wakes up” the prefrontal cortex. More often, the answer is the slow and steady development of strategies and skills we call scaffolding. Some of us seem to absorb these skills through osmosis, but others need to be explicitly taught by specialists. Where our school system fails our children is in not teaching kids these skills directly as the basic foundations of all learning. Without these key pieces, academic success becomes more difficult. 
At NowWhat Support Services, a comprehensive therapeutic clinic in Ancaster, we work one-on-one and in groups to help kids, teens and adults identify their blind spots and find life hacks and self-regulation strategies to gain efficiency, competence and confidence in their day-to-day lives.
We can help parents set their kids up for success by finding ways to remove distractions from their child’s routines, shifting the dynamic from telling kids what to do, to helping them own their decisions and move toward greater independence. Take tackling weekday morning chaos for example. Younger kids might need to spend 15 minutes with you on Sundays selecting a complete outfit for each day of the week to remove the thinking from getting dressed each morning. For grade school kids, their dresser may need overhauling to only contain current parentally approved, seasonally appropriate choices—nothing else!—and have each category of clothing stored separately in a clearly defined drawer in the order they put it on their body, to limit choices and distractions. Teens may find it helpful to use a big analog clock with sections chunked out in whiteboard marker to help them move through their morning without losing track of time. Adults may find reminders on their phones or Alexa, or having a giant post-it-note calendar in the kitchen helpful. The key is finding what works for you.
Executive function, self-regulation and distress tolerance skills are woven into almost everything we do at NowWhat. We don’t worry about pathologizing or diagnosing every challenge; we focus on finding the best way to support each individual and their family. Often that doesn’t happen inside the four walls of a clinical room, especially with kids, so whenever we can, we bust “therapy” out of the box and into real life—into the kitchen, the forest, the community. Kids are learning these skills in situations that mirror their real lives, so they tend to ‘stick’ a little better and translate into positive changes at home and school.
The No. 1 strategy Rina likes to pass on when helping kids and adults is the Pause and Plan reminder. It’s easy to burn through your day reacting to every curveball thrown at you. Before you know it, it’s bedtime again and you feel like a hamster on a wheel—getting nowhere fast. Something as simple as deliberately taking three deep breaths before responding can buy you the time you need to let your brain have a say in a situation. And it’s so important to invest your time in solving the right problems, which can be really hard to identify when you’re stuck in the middle of your own personal hurricane! 
When Rina works with parents, she helps them collect the data as objectively as possible and work out how to parent their actual children instead of trying to live up to some external ideal of what good parenting or good kids should look like.  Every family has its own dynamic. Finding out what your big picture values are can help tweak you approach to line up with you goals and priorities.
In the end, NowWhat is all about creating a little more shalom in the home.