What is executive functioning? It is a set of mental skills coordinated in the brain's frontal lobe. Executive functions work together to help us achieve goals. We use executive functioning when we plan, organize, strategize, pay attention, and remember details. Executive functioning is slow to develop. It emerges in infancy and experiences tremendous changes between the ages of two and six, but it does not peak until around the age of 25. Therefore it is important for children to be provided strategies as well as adult support in order to help them acquire the skills needed. Executive functioning is more of an umbrella term for the mental skills required to set and achieve goals. While concerns can be seen at any age, we tend to see more concerns during upper elementary and middle school grades as the demands of schoolwork increase. Also, it is at the upper elementary and middle school age that the demand for independent study increases and students are given the responsibility to plan and organize papers and projects. Here, parents and teachers may begin to see patterns.
There are a few terms to know to better understand this subject. Executive function, shifting, initiation, working memory, self-monitoring, and the executive function of planning and organizing and are defined as follows and are critical pieces of this puzzle. The executive function of inhibition simply means a lack of impulse control. Shifting is the inability to move freely from one situation to another or difficulty thinking flexibly in order to respond appropriately to a given situation. Initiation is the ability to begin a task or activity and independently generate ideas, responses, and problem-solving strategies. Working memory is the capacity to hold information in one’s mind for the purpose of completing a task. Self-monitoring is the ability to monitor one's own performance and measure it against some standard of what is needed or expected. Last but not least, is the ability to plan and organize which we will dig into a little deeper here. The executive function of planning and organizing, simply means that we have the ability to manage current and future task-oriented demands which include the ability to impose order on various situations in our daily lives. I like to think that if we have great organizational skills we will be more efficient and much less stressed out. Below are five steps for better planning and organizing with most of them being provided by my college-age daughter who has learned how to manage herself when mom is not around.
Step 1 - Write everything down! Use a planner, agenda, a calendar or you can even use your cell phone. When you decide on one platform to use be sure to write everything in it and use it often so that it becomes second nature to you. Treat it with importance like your cell phone, your wallet, or your car keys and never leave home without it. If it is not with you, you need to feel a sense of loneliness. Be sure to look for your item on the seat of the bus or car and label the planner with your name and contact information on the front and back just in case it gets lost.
Step 2 - Set up a Master Binder System! This organizational skill is helpful for middle schoolers and it is a big Trapper Keeper with the zipper. Don’t purchase an inexpensive one because it is most likely to break and you may become frustrated. Splurge on a sturdy three-ring binder with a release latch that locks in place. There is nothing worse than trying to open the prongs to a binder and everything comes flying out. Also, purchase a plastic crate and hanging file folders. Set your system up at home and take the school papers out of the binder once you have completed a unit or concept, but save the papers for the semester exams.
Step 3 - Declutter your life! The less stuff we have the better. Declutter your room, your bookbag, your sports bag, and your binder.
Step 4 - Be FIRE alarm ready! Prepare everything the night before (not the morning of). Lay your clothes out, put your school supplies back in the book bag, put your sporting gear in the bag, put your purse and car keys in the same spot too! If you get into this habit, you will not find yourself running around the morning of and you are less likely to forget something. When you prepare ahead and keep your things in the same location you set up a system that establishes a routine. Mastering the routine is key for long-term success.
Step 5 - Remember procrastination is the enemy! You must develop a checklist, create an action plan, and get to work.
Lastly, remember that ‘to-dos’ don’t always get done, but if we plan to succeed then we can overcome obstacles. No one wakes each morning hoping to forget things or wanting to disappoint people. Don’t let defeat trip you up because things happen. Traffic happens, books are forgotten at home, papers are lost, but it is going to be okay. Just take a deep breath and stop the “why can't I just”…..voice that creeps into our thoughts. Remember to follow your organizational plan.