Executive skills and child development – Part 2

Editor’s note: Early educators throughout Addison County are raising awareness of the importance of early brain development, and positive child experiences. Expanding our understanding will help us all become the best parents, caregivers and teachers we can be. This is the second of two articles about early brain development and how conditions in very early life, beginning in pregnancy, can affect individuals far into adulthood. Click here to read Brakeley’s first article.

By DR. JODY BRAKELEY

In the last article, we learned that executive skills (hereafter referred to as ES) are “brain-based skills that help individuals complete tasks and become independent.” Babies are born with the potential to develop ES over time. Through support and feedback from others, a child develops ES gradually and sequentially, like baby steps. Previously we examined response inhibition (the opposite of impulsivity), emotional control, working memory, flexibility and self-monitoring.

In this segment, we will look at six other executive skills that make life easier.

Sustained attention is the ability to keep paying attention to a situation or task even when there are distractions or when one is tired or bored. Maturely developed sustained attention is the ability to pay attention to the right thing at the right time for as long as it takes. For some folks, this is an easier task than for others. Of course, the situation, topic or activity makes a big difference as well. When you are interested in a topic or activity, when it is easy for you to understand, when there is lots of prompt positive feedback, etc., it is much easier to remain focused.

Task initiation is the ability to “get started”; it is the opposite of procrastination. It means that you can begin a project in an efficient and timely manner. Individuals with strong task initiation skills can get right to work doing homework, cleaning their room or home, correcting papers, paying bills, filling out a necessary form, fixing the faucet and so on.

Planning/prioritization is the ability to create a roadmap to reach a goal or complete a task. It involves making decisions about what is important to focus on and what is not. It is a mental or physical list of what to do first, then second, then third, and so on. People who make lists are grooming this skill.

Organization is the ability to create and maintain systems to keep track of information, materials and personal belongings. There are children who always lose their mittens, jackets and backpacks. They may grow into teenagers and adults who lose their car keys, wash their cell phones, and misplace important items. Sometimes folks can overdo their need for organization. There are individuals who are so organized that they have a place for everything; nothing is ever out of place. They not only have lists; they have lists of their lists! That can be just as challenging as not being organized enough.

Time management is being able to estimate time, portion it out, and stick to time limits and deadlines. It carries with it a sense that time is important. People with well-developed time management skills are typically on time for meetings, mail in their bills before getting a penalty, and arrive for appointments, school or work on time. Individuals with less well-developed time management skills are notoriously late. They rack up speeding tickets because they have not judged their time well and may owe a lot of interest on late credit card payments.

Goal-directed persistence is the ability to stick with a project until it is done. It means that the individual is not distracted by competing interests and that s/he can stay on her/his roadmap until the job is completed. Individuals who start projects such as making Christmas presents, organizing the family room, or building a small structure, but who never seem to get them finished may need to train their goal-directed persistence ES.

If you were to add impulsivity (i.e. impatience, inability to wait) to these six ES, I wonder if you would be reminded of anyone you know — maybe even yourself. There is emerging consensus that Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) with or without high-activity, has to do with immaturely developed ES. This makes a lot of sense to me, and it actually fills me with hope.

When we view ADHD as a set of immaturely developed ES, it takes away blame and judgment of the individual and his or her family. It implies that there are ways to develop any weak ES just the way one might learn to putt a golf ball. This newer understanding helps parents and teachers become more patient with children who have these traits. It leaves us on the doorstep to developing more effective strategies, therapies, and treatment programs.

Now you have 11 new concepts to add to your vocabulary. Keep them tucked away; we may see them again some time: 1) Response Inhibition, 2) Working Memory, 3) Emotional Control, 4) Flexibility 5) Meta-Cognition 6) Sustained Attention, 7) Task Initiation, 8) Planning/Prioritization, 9) Organization, 10) Time Management, and 11) Goal-Directed Persistence.

Addison Building Bright Futures is part of the Building Bright Futures (BBF) statewide network. BBF is the only statewide nonprofit, public-private partnership organization focused solely on improving the well-being of young children and families by improving the system that serves them. Addison Building Bright Futures partners with Let’s Grow Kids, a privately funded, statewide public education campaign to raise awareness about the importance of the earliest years to the success of Vermont’s children, communities and economy.

Dr. Johana “Jody” Brakeley is a member of Addison Building Bright Futures and a Let’s Grow Kids volunteer. Dr. Brakeley is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and former pediatrician in Middlebury.


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