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The importance of learning executive functioning skills

Executive Functioning Disorder (EFD) is a term being bandied around a lot these days, and not just in the context of adults. In the US and UK, it seems parents are now paying for their children to be taught executive functioning skills by coaches and therapists when they are struggling to start or complete goal-oriented projects such as homework, and are habitually procrastinating as a coping mechanism.

In order for children to do well and succeed at school, it is deemed essential that they are able to master what is termed higher order thinking skills which include being focused, planning, prioritising, scheduling, managing their time, flexibility in problem-solving, communication skills, co-operation and researching. In addition to that, it includes being what we now term “mindful”, i.e. present, alert and relaxed and so self-regulate the emotions so as to resist the need for immediate reward and resist social media temptations.

An example of failure to do this may well be part of the reason for Sweden’s present mental health crisis in primary and secondary children, particularly boys. Due to the prevailing so-called social-constructivist view of schooling children, they are left to determine their own view of reality rather than taught facts. Thus they are left to their own devices in terms of how and what they learn. Neither general skills such as critical thinking are taught nor the higher order thinking skills and research now suggests that this model of education may well be linked to the high level (9%) of diagnosed and medicated Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in boys there.

Although used a lot by therapists to help those suffering from ADHD in this country, there is no diagnosed disorder of EFD. However, any child who does not master the skills of attention and impulse control which is a large part of executive functioning, will often then struggle in daily life as an adult, including in the workplace if they do not address the distress and impairment it generates.

Learning these skills in childhood, recognizing that procrastination stems from the belief that there is some sort of short-term gain to be had and that in the long term this process only subverts achievement is key to helping the child becoming a fully functioning adult.

At home, those adults and parents with poor executive functioning skills suffer the same failure to self-regulate. They tend to get distracted and let everything slide - bills pile up, there is a failure to budget, their children are often late for school and they are late for work or forget appointments. They do not plan or prepare. Things either do not get started or they never get finished, the half-finished jobs all over the house continue to increase in number and things are always getting lost, much to the chagrin of those in the family who feel that as a result, everything gets left to them to sort out. However, it must be said that in some cases it transpires that partners are actually facilitating the dysfunction by doing everything for them. Personal hygiene often suffers as those with this EFD forget to wash or shower, clean their teeth or change the bed.

The children of parents with EFD are frequently unboundaried because the parents do not know how to set boundaries. Appointments like the dentist get missed and school parent’s evenings get forgotten.

In the workplace employees who have not learned self-regulation commonly suffer from an inability to manage their time and work efficiently, they fail to delegate, procrastinate and may suffer from performance anxiety. They do not plan, organize, prioritize or schedule their work. They also struggle to create strategies to deal with any problems that may arise. So the emails and paperwork pile up, phone calls don’t get returned, the presentation still hasn’t been started for the presentation this afternoon. Distractions continue to take priority.

In all cases, the short-term gain of procrastination and giving in to distraction is outweighed by the longer-term pain of feeling either overwhelmed or despairing over lack of achievement because there just never seems to be enough time to get things done.

There are many tools and strategies to help both adults and children improve these skills including situations where there has been a brain injury or there is some other brain function impairment.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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