Definition of Terms

What are executive skills? Executive skills refer to the brain-based, cognitive processes that help us to regulate our behavior, make decisions and set and achieve goals. These skills include task initiation and follow through, planning/organization, working memory, performance monitoring, inhibition of impulses, and self-regulation. Youngsters with weak executive skills can be disorganized or forgetful, have trouble getting started on tasks and get distracted easily. They can become angry when routines are changed or expectations not met and act without realizing the consequences of their actions.

School performance is affected by lost papers or assignments, forgotten homework, last minute work and careless mistakes. These youngsters don’t know how to begin long-term assignments and their workspaces, desks and backpacks resemble “black holes.” At home, mornings can be chaotic and misplaced clothing, sports equipment and school materials are a routine occurrence. Chores don’t get done unless nagging is constant. During the teen years, emotional outbursts are common and parents hold their breath when their son or daughter gets behind the wheel of a car or goes out with friends, fearful of the risks they might take.

Executive Skill Definitions

  • Emotional Control: The ability to manage emotions in order to achieve goals, complete tasks, or control and direct behavior. A young child with this skill is able to recover from a disappointment in a short time. A teenager is able to manage the anxiety of a game or test and still perform.
  • Flexibility: The ability to revise plans in the face of obstacles, setbacks, new information or mistakes. It relates to an adaptability to changing conditions. A young child can adjust to a change in plans without major distress. A high school student can accept an alternative such as a different job when the first choice is not available.
  • Goal-directed persistence: The capacity to have a goal, follow through to the completion of the goal, and not be put off by or distracted by competing interests. A first grader can complete a job in order to get to recess. A teenager can earn and save money over time to buy something of importance.
  • Metacognition: The ability to stand back and take a birds-eye view of oneself in a situation. It is an ability to observe how you problem solve. It also includes self-monitoring and self-evaluative skills (e.g., asking yourself, “How am I doing? or How did I do?”). A young child can change behavior is response to feedback from an adult. A teenager can monitor and critique her performance and improve it by observing others who are more skilled.
  • Organization: The ability to create and maintain systems to keep track of information or materials. A young child can, with a reminder, put toys in a designated place. An adolescent can organize and locate sports equipment.
  • Planning/Prioritization: The ability to create a roadmap to reach a goal or to complete a task. It also involves being able to make decisions about what’s important to focus on and what’s not important. A young child, with coaching, can think of options to settle a peer conflict. A teenager can formulate a plan to get a job.
  • Response Inhibition: The capacity to think before you act – this ability to resist the urge to say or do something allows us the time to evaluate a situation and how our behavior might impact it. In the young child, waiting for a short period without being disruptive is an example of response inhibition while in the adolescent it would be demonstrated by accepting a referee’s call without an argument.
  • Stress Tolerance: The ability to thrive in stressful situations and to cope with uncertainty, change, and performance demands. We generally reserve our discussion of this skill to adults, since it seems more relevant with this population. We find it helps people understand the kind of work environment they do best in.
  • Sustained Attention: The capacity to maintain attention to a situation or task in spite of distractibility, fatigue, or boredom. Completing a 5-minute chore with occasional supervision is an example of sustained attention in the younger child. The teenager is able to attend to homework, with short breaks, for one to two hours.
  • Task Initiation: The ability to begin projects without undue procrastination, in an efficient or timely fashion. A young child is able to start a chore or assignment right after instructions are given. A high school student does not wait until the last minute to begin a project.
  • Time Management: The capacity to estimate how much time one has, how to allocate it, and how to stay within time limits and deadlines. It also involves a sense that time is important. A young child can complete a short job within a time limit set by an adult. A high school student can establish a schedule to meet task deadlines.
  • Working Memory: The ability to hold information in memory while performing complex tasks. It incorporates the ability to draw on past learning or experience to apply to the situation at hand or to project into the future. A young child, for example can hold in mind and follow 1-2 step directions while the middle school child can remember the expectations of multiple teachers.
Helping children and teens with executive skills approach