What Is Executive Function and How Can You Improve it?
Imagine you’re planning a trip for an upcoming family reunion. It requires you coordinate and communicate schedules for 10 different people. This is all on top of juggling the myriad of demands from work and family. With so many sources competing for our time and attention, it’s our executive function skills that helps us focus, plan, and organize so we can effectively process this kind of information and respond with the best course of actions.
It is easy to take these skills for granted, but they are needed to carry out routine activities every day. This blog will expand on executive function and steps that can be taken to strengthen these skills through speech therapy.
What Is Executive Function?
Executive function refers to a set of cognitive skills and mental processes that support our ability to both organize and retain information. These skills assist our ability to modulate how we use and respond to information based on environmental and other circumstances.
These skills include our ability to:
- Focus and sustain attention
- Think abstractly and flexibly
- Filter out extraneous information and select appropriate details, some of which are sensory in nature (e.g., visual perceptual information)
- Organize and sequence information
- Reason abstractly and logically
- Manage time
- Hold on to and process multiple pieces of information using different types of memory (e.g., working memory)
Executive function skills also encompass skills that help us self-regulate and include but are not limited to:
- Regulating emotions
- Managing impulses
- Initiating behaviors
- Making decisions using reason
How Do Executive Function Skills Relate to Speech and Language?
Cognition and language are groups of skills that are closely entwined. Cognitive skills – or the ability to pay and sustain attention, retain information, and manipulate information to organize, plan, and process messages – make it possible for people to:
- Effectively listen and comprehend people speaking
- Interpret written text
- Organize, link, and sequence ideas to communicate messages in a cohesive and coherent manner both orally and in writing
- Hold on to, organize, and process multiple pieces of information to complete a task or explain a complex idea
- Integrate multiple pieces of contextual information to form decisions based on reason and logic
- Get started on a task
- Recognize communication breakdowns and make repairs
- Read and correctly interpret social cues
- Regulate emotions
- Control impulses
What Causes Poor Executive Function?
Any traumatic or neurological injury such as a stroke, tumor, or trauma that impacts cortical networks may cause disruptions to executive function skills.
Changes to executive function skills may also occur in the presence of progressive neurological conditions, such as Primary Progressive Aphasia (a fronto-temporal dementia), Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, Parkinson’s disease, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and Lewy Body Dementia.
These skills may also change in people who have suffered concussions, have high levels of anxiety and/or depression, and with congenital conditions that impact cognitive and language development. Weaknesses in executive function may also present in otherwise typically developing children with unknown origin.
That said, temporary fluctuations in executive function are expected and considered typical in all of us, particularly when experiencing fatigue, dehydration, stress, anxiety, or significant changes to life circumstances.
How Does Executive Function Impact Development in Children?
Children who experience weaknesses in executive function may experience difficulties with verbal reasoning, simple or complex comprehension, discourse, and executive functioning during challenging functional tasks.
What does this look like? A child may have difficulty getting the facts, or paying attention to the most important or salient pieces of information needed to understand something. Eliminating Irrelevant Information – Can the person identify and ignore less relevant information in order to focus on more important information?
- Weighing the Facts– Can the person compare or weigh competing options or criteria?
- Flexibility– Can the person revise a decision or plan of action when presented with new information?
- Generating of Alternatives– Can the person efficiently generate a variety of solutions, options or alternatives?
- Predicting Consequences– Can the person predict potential outcomes, pros and cons, or consequences of a choice?
- Providing a Rationale– Can the person provide a rationale or a set of reasons for making a choice?
Sometimes children who present with executive function challenges will comprehend the content of what is being taught but may struggle to get started on class activities or talk about what they know. They may have difficulty expressing their ideas efficiently and effectively without losing their train of thought, interrupting conversational partners, or having emotional outbursts due to communication breakdowns. Unfortunately, but understandably, these types of difficulties may spur social-emotional and academic consequences because of challenges they experience when attempting to communicate with peers or adults.
How Can Age Impact Executive Function?
All adults, as part of typical and natural aging, may experience differences in executive functions. Changes may be progressive or temporary, and are impacted by anxiety, stress, medications, and other factors. Adults have and need core life skills to successfully manage occupational demands, family, personal needs, and relationships. These skills include planning, focus, self-control, awareness, and flexibility. These skills can be learned and strengthened, even in the presence of changes of known or unknown cause.
Though it is easier to learn these skills when you’ve had a strong foundation early in life, it is never too late to improve! It was once believed that humans only lose neurons as we age, but science and experience has proven that is no longer the case! Research and experience has shown that the brain is resilient, due in large part to neuroplasticity (in response to specific, intensive exercise) that permits the brain to modify connections and rewire itself!
How Can Speech Therapy Help Improve Executive Function?
Speech therapy focuses on strengthening those cognitive processes and behaviors that underpin strong language skills. Intervention improves you or your loved one’s ability to retain, organize, and interpret information to communicate with peers and colleagues with greater ease and confidence. Treatment helps you develop strategies that will reduce experiences of cognitive-communication related stress and anxiety to stay meaningfully connected with others, participate fully in your life, and feel excited about the future!
Moreover, introducing strategies that harness mind-body awareness assists in recognizing signs of personal frustration or anxiety that can impact optimal executive functioning. Exploring effective management of these stressors is also integrated into treatment plans in order to improve communication and optimize language.
Speech Therapy at Open Lines
At Open Lines, we meet these challenges with compassion and curiosity, recognizing that everyone possesses a unique set of strengths and learning needs.
A licensed speech-language therapist will guide you or your loved one through a one-on-one comprehensive evaluation to assess language and cognitive linguistic skills as well as personal coping styles to determine areas of strengths and identify specific areas in need of support.
Open Lines’ specialists develop a personal plan of action based on personally relevant and motivating goals. Outcomes are achieved and communicative confidence is addressed using a combination of individualized exercises, environmental modifications, and functional activities designed to optimize effective carryover of skills into your day-to-day activities.
Contact Open Lines today by phone at 212-430-6800, by email at info@OpenLines.com, or through our contact form to schedule a free phone consultation or an evaluation.