What Is Executive Functioning and How Can Teens Develop the Right Skills?

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Some people are familiar with the term executive functioning in the context of learning disabilities. In fact, deficits in executive functioning are a primary symptom of ADD and ADHD. Many people are surprised to hear, however, that no one is born with inherent executive functioning skills. Instead, these skills are learned and refined throughout childhood and into adolescence. During the teen years, the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which governs most executive functioning skills, undergoes rapid development.

 

In this post, we will discuss exactly what executive functioning is, how it relates to specific skills needed to succeed during high school, and how to build and develop these skills over time. To learn more about optimizing your organizational skills, don’t miss this overview of executive functioning.

 

What Is Executive Functioning?

 

Executive functioning refers to the functions that help you manage your life’s tasks. These include skills like organization, time management, prioritization, and problem-solving, among many others.

 

The exact formal definition of executive functioning is:

 

A set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. An umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation.

 

There are three primary areas brain functions that contribute to executive functioning. In the section below, we’ll outline each of these functions and a the most important skills that each governs.

 

What Are the Three Areas of Executive Functioning?

 

According to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, three brain functions combine to account for your executive functioning skills. These are:

 

Working Memory

 

Working memory is responsible for your ability to retain and use specific pieces of information over short periods of time. It  allows you to weigh new information and determine its relevance to what you are doing. It also allows you to retain this information while it’s fresh so that you can use it immediately. For example, working memory allows you to remember where you set your car keys when you ran back into the house to turn off the porch light. Other common tasks that rely on working memory include:

 

  • Remembering a phone number long enough to dial it
  • Remembering a word problem long enough to solve it
  • Maintaining focus and concentration
  • Remembering instructions long enough to carry them out
  • Paraphrasing or summarizing new information

 

Mental Flexibility

 

Mental flexibility is sometimes referred to as the ability to think on your feet. Essentially, it is a person’s ability to change or adapt a plan in response to other stimuli. For example, when you’re working on a visual project and realize you are out of paint, mental flexibility allows you to come up with an alternate medium for creating your piece without starting all over again. Other common tasks that rely on mental flexibility include:

 

  • Shifting attention from one speaker to another during a conversation or lesson
  • Carefully weighing options before making a final decision
  • Tolerating ambiguity
  • Seeing things from someone else’s perspective
  • Learning from mistakes
  • Trying different methods of problem solving
  • Assessing risks before taking them

 

Self-Control

 

Self-control is probably the most commonly-known brain functions involved with executive functioning. Self-control is your ability to control your impulses, emotions, and behaviors in order to achieve long-term goals. For example, when you are frustrated with the grade you received on your paper, rather than using colorful language to tell your teacher what you really think about it, you use self-control to request an explanation so that you can improve your grade next time. Other common tasks that rely on self-control include:

 

  • Setting and working towards long-term goals
  • Monitoring and correcting your own progress
  • Staying motivated
  • Maintaining self-confidence
  • Seeing the value in delayed gratification
  • Avoiding temptation

 

The three brain functions above combine to create your executive functioning skills, but they aren’t inherent. Instead, they are built over time.

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How Can You Build Executive Functioning Skills?

 

The skills necessary for executive functioning need to be practiced throughout high school. Some ways you can do this include:

 

Practice Smart Goal-Setting

 

Choose goals that challenge you, but are achievable. Then, write them down so that you can hold yourself accountable. Work backwards from your end goal to create a planning process with distinguishable, concrete steps towards the finished product. If you know you’ll need help, create a check-in process in advance so that someone can provide support, direction, and accountability as you work towards your long term goal.

 

Learn to Self-Monitor

 

Negative self-talk, misunderstandings, and too much multitasking can all be roadblocks to executive functioning, but learning to self-monitor can help you address all these issues.

 

It starts with becoming aware of negative thought processes. Once you recognize these patterns of negative thinking, you can step back and see them more objectively. Try to identify areas for growth rather than areas of failure. Adjust your thinking to what you’ll do to improve next time rather than ruminating on a negative experience. If you’ve had a negative interaction with someone, try to imagine switching places with them and what their perception or experience may have been. Try giving them the benefit of the doubt, or writing out your thoughts and feelings in a journal.

 

You can also self-monitor your progress towards goals by identifying barriers. If you’re constantly getting off track by answering your phone, checking social media, or simply looking out the window, find a way to eliminate these distractions so that you can focus on one task at a time. Multitasking can be a strength, but you need to be able to identify if it’s setting you back.

 

Use an Organizer

 

Having a system for remembering the countless due dates, commitments, and deadlines is a prerequisite for success. Consider a simple pen and paper system to help you internalize, as writing by hand generally requires more time and attention.

 

At the same time, an electronic backup system can help to provide automated reminders and notifications. Get into the habit of doing both to maximize your productivity.

 

Get a Mentor

 

Building executive functioning skills doesn’t happen overnight and it’s rarely something that can be done by yourself. You need role models and mentors to help along the way. Whether these people help you fine-tune your approach to studying or long-term assignments, provide scaffolding in areas that need to be further developed, or simply hold you accountable for the goals that you’ve set, their help can be invaluable.

 

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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.