Music can make people feel alive. As the conductor taps their baton on the stand, the violinist draws their bow and the trumpet player raises their horn; the tension in the concert hall is palpable. It is easy to get swept away by an orchestra led by an assiduous conductor. Without the leadership of the conductor, musicians would be left on their own to keep track of every detail. It is the conductor’s role to let the violinist know when to come in and how long the oboe players need to hold their notes. The conductor keeps the pace as the symphony switches from staccato to legato even when dealing with distractions from the sniffling man in the third row or when the bass player misses their note.
If the conductor steps away, temporarily loses focus, or suddenly becomes impaired, the orchestra members will have difficulty staying in tune, they can be offbeat, one person may come in too early, another comes in too late. One member of the orchestra may be confused while the other manages his or her discomfort with episodes of anger and then another may just give up because all the information is just too confusing or overwhelming.
This is similar to the way in which the frontal lobe region of our brain works.
It is responsible for important cognitive skills such as emotional expression, impulse control, initiation, motor function, social and sexual behavior, and judgement.
This control panel is integral to what we call executive functions and is also home to our personalities.
So like the conductor of an orchestra, the frontal lobes are connected with other brain areas and coordinate the activities in those regions. When the conductor is healthy, the orchestra can master a symphony. But when the conductor is not feeling well, the orchestra struggles to function and play to its highest level.
What Is Executive Function?
Executive function, also called cognitive control, “is the capacity that allows us to control and coordinate our thoughts and behavior.” Executive functioning skills help people stay on track with everyday tasks and are crucial to development. These skills develop in early childhood and are now thought to reach full maturity in the mid to late -20s. Psychologists break down these skills into eight pillars:
Organization of Materials
The following are examples of how parents and psychologists can observe executive functioning development in children and adolescents. These descriptions can give a glimpse into executive function but should not be used to diagnose deficits or sufficiency as more careful examination and scrutiny need to be applied.
An adolescent’s ability to think before acting or speaking lies in inhibition. As children mature, they are less likely to interrupt someone during a conversation or partake in high-risk, impulsive behaviors.
Self-monitoring allows a child to test how well they’re doing and change their behavior for a better outcome. If they are playing a game and losing, they can self-monitor their performance and adjust their strategy to win without having an emotional breakdown.
Life is constantly moving and children must learn to adapt. Shifting allows adolescents to more easily move from one thing to the next both in behavior and thinking. Proper shifting helps youth and adolescents deal with change effectively and rationally.
As most adolescent’s brain mature, they gain more control over their emotions and are able to emotionally regulate without large peaks and valleys in their mood.
Strong initiation skill is when a child knows they must do something or need to start a task and are able to activate without prompting or procrastination that is outside the normal scope of adolescent behavior.
Working memory is like a post-it note. Children can remember directions after a teacher has given them or draw on past lessons in school to complete a task at hand. Working memory allows children to take information in, process it, and know what do do with it for future use or task completion.
Planning and organization is the ability to prioritize, sequence, and manage tasks to completion. The ability to plan something out, organize the information, sequence out the steps, and complete the task at hand are crucial skills in life. This is also the function that helps adolescents with goal-setting. Adolescents can look ahead and decide what they want to accomplish and how they’ll reach that goal.
Organization of Materials
Keeping track of thoughts and objects helps adolescents stay organized. Organizing materials mentally and physically allow an adolescent to stay on track. This is the school-aged child and the ever frustrating backpack scenario. A child completes their homework but their backpack is so disorganized they can’t find their homework and do not get credit for their work.
These 8 pillars are crucial for “mental and physical health; success in school and in life; and cognitive, social, and psychological development,” as well as healthy relationships with parents.
Skills deficits in any or all of these can create significant conflict in the parent-child relationship leading to larger and more serious problems. Self-esteem is severely impacted in children who have EF deficits and impairments.
Issues In The Eight Pillars Lead To Executive Dysfunction
In combination with careful observation, there are many tests psychologists use to determine impaired executive function skills. Parents can see signs their adolescent has underdeveloped executive functioning when they have:
- Trouble starting and completing tasks
- Low frustration tolerance
- Time-management problems
- Inability to plan
- Slow processing
- Difficulty in following directions
- Increased anxiety and agitation
- Lack of impulse control
However, parents and teachers confuse many of these symptoms with ADD and ADHD. Adolescents with ADD and ADHD do have impairments with executive functioning, however, not all these impairments are due to the ADD and ADHD. That is why careful observation and evaluation with a trained psychologist is imperative to discern the two.
Delayed And Impaired Executive Function Skills Can Be Improved
Executive Functioning skills can be improved with specific training and strategies. The process to developing these skills first involves a parent’s clear understanding of what the deficit areas are and the significance of the impairments. In the same manner the conductor of an orchestra provides leadership, children and adolescents with executive functioning impairments need parental leadership and support to effectively improve skills development in this area. Without support and training, those with executive functioning deficits can experience higher levels of anxiety, depression, and may act out behaviorally to avoid everyday struggles they feel. This can create increased strain and conflict within the family system.
Equinox Counseling and Wellness Center works with the entire family so everyone can learn to manage and cope with executive functioning deficits in a family member. We help to not only provide coaching and support for parents and kids, we work to heal the family. We bring hope for a brighter future for the whole family.