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Executive functions in children and adolescents

Executive functions in children

Thanks to this post, you will further your understanding of executive functions in children and adolescents, with a special emphasis on ADHD and executive function problems.

In addition, you will learn a number of strategies to stimulate and boost the appropriate development of executive function in children.

Executive functions in children

In the last 20 years, there has been an increasing interest in learning and researching how to improve executive functions in children and adolescents, especially in studying the consequences and the association with psychopathologies in both childhood and adulthood.

Executive functions can be understood as “complex cognitive processes necessary for planning, organizing, guiding, revising, regulating, and evaluating behavior necessary to adapt effectively to the environment and to achieve goals” (Bauermeister, 2008).

According to this definition, we can see how important executive function skills are in the early years of life, childhood and adolescence, and how children with executive function deficits or problems will have difficulties in effectively adapting to environmental changes.

Executive function problems

While executive functioning issues are not considered a disability on their own, we cannot forget the impact they may have on children’s everyday lives.

It is important to clarify that executive function deficits are unrelated to intellectual capacity. People with high intellectual capacity may have executive function difficulties.

Executive function deficits may be manifested when children and adolescents:

Problems associated with executive function difficulties in children

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

ADHD affects planning, impulse control, attention and working memory among others. In addition, children with ADHD take longer to develop executive function skills.

An estimated 30% of people with ADHD have executive function problems.

Training executive functions in children with ADHD has been shown to be one of the most effective intervention tools.

Learning disabilities (dyslexia, dyscalculia…)

Studies have shown the relationship between learning disabilities and executive function deficits in children and adolescents.

Children with learning disabilities and ADHD are at greater risk for more severe executive dysfunction.

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS): Studies show that children prenatally exposed to alcohol exhibit learning disabilities and greater deficits in memory and various executive functions.

Acquired brain injury: Acquired brain injury, especially if the damage is in the frontal and prefrontal brain structures, correlates with deficits in executive functions such as flexibility, self-regulation, planning, and decision making.

How to improve executive functions in children and adolescents

1.    The dictionary of emotions

This activity for improving executive functions involves using a dictionary to search for words that express emotions. For example, emotions starting with A: anger, anxiety, affection, etc.

Once the child finds the word, he/she must write the definition on a blank piece of paper and give a specific example of how he/she experiences that emotion.

On the one hand, children get to train executive functions, and on the other hand, this exercise is especially useful for training abilities such as self-regulation, planning, and inhibition, all the while helping children to get to know themselves better.

2.    “Simon says…”

This game can be put into practice both individually and in groups. This is a game where one player takes the role of Simon and issues instructions to the other players, who are eliminated from the game if they fail to follow them.

Instructions are immediately preceded by the phrase “Simon says”. Be careful! If the child who plays Simon issues an instruction without having said “Simon says” first, this action does not have to be done.

For example, the child who plays the role of Simon says: “Simon says… clap!”. In this case, the other children must clap their hands. However, if the child playing Simon simply says “Everybody, clap!”, no one should do it because the instruction was not prefaced with “Simon says”.

With this game, sustained attention, inhibitory control, stimulus discrimination, following of instructions and self-monitoring are improved.

3.    Music

Music is a perfect means of promoting the development of executive functions in children and adolescents. Dancing, singing, or playing any instrument boost the development of different functions such as improvisation, cognitive flexibility, working memory, and inhibition.

4.    The IDEAL problem-solving method

This method is especially recommended for children and adolescents with ADHD, although anyone can benefit from putting it into practice to improve executive function.

The IDEAL method is a great tool for effective problem solving.

The first step is to identify that there is a specific problem. For example, “I have failed my math exam.”

In this step, the problem has to be defined in detail; a good strategy to do this is to ask yourself a question and give an answer to it: “Why have I failed my math exam? Because I have not studied enough and got distracted a lot while studying for it.”

The next time the child takes an exam, he/she will have already judged and considered what made him/her fail the previous exam, and will have already chosen the strategies that he/she will use to prevent that from happening again.

In the last step, the child must review all the steps that have been implemented and assess the outcome. As children practice this method, little by little,they will internalize it (initially it is normal for you to guide them) and will carry it out in an almost automatic manner, which leads to an enhancement of executive functions.

5.    Interactive activities with NeuronUP

Thanks to the rise of new technologies, neurorehabilitation professionals can have access to the best tools to train executive functioning in children, adolescents, and adults. Thanks to NeuronUP, children will be able to train executive function skills guided by neuropsychologists or occupational therapists who will be supervising them.

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