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Executive Function Strategies Blog

When is the Best Time to Work on Improving Executive Function Skills?

When does a minor problem become a major problem? Sometimes the tipping point is just out of view,Inhibition skills help adults and students resist distractions but it creeps up over time.

In 2013, my primary care doctor came into the room and said to me, “You’ve gained six pounds since you were last here.” Yup. That sounded about right. Seeing as I’m not a scale-watching fanatic, the comment didn’t really affect me. But that wasn’t the end of the discussion. “Six pounds isn’t a problem,” she carefully explained, “unless it’s another six next year and another six the year after that.”  

I wasn’t planning on acquiring about 20 pounds over the next few years, of course, but I hadn’t really thought of my slight weight gain from that point of view. The consequences of gaining six pounds over that last year were minimal; maybe some pants didn’t fit as comfortably, but that wasn’t a terrible nuisance. If I continued at this rate, though, I may be putting myself at risk for something more serious than just replacing my wardrobe in a few years. Suddenly, “no big deal” became a warning bell to change my habits.

In the same way, weaknesses in a student’s Executive Function skill set can sometimes appear less significant than they really are. Seen in a smaller context, a challenge could be a minor inconvenience, but widen the lens a bit and we can see the ramifications of failing to acquire some core self-management skills.

What happens when weak inhibition skills are not addressed?

Let’s take inhibition, for example. Inhibition is the Executive Function skill that helps your child avoid checking Snapchat on his phone instead of studying for a Geometry quiz. If your child has weak inhibition skills, it might wind up costing him 20 points on his quiz. Getting a 70 on one math quiz isn’t going to destroy his grade, cause him to repeat sophomore year, and ruin his chances of getting into Notre Dame. And perhaps even getting 70s on all of his math quizzes gives him the opportunity to focus his college essay on why he’s decided to major in history instead of math. So the lowered quiz scores, while not ideal, aren’t the end of the world.

But as he gets older, the necessity of strengthening his inhibition skills becomes more essential. As an adult, being unable to pull himself away from Facebook (or whatever the popular social media site for adults of 2025 will be) has more significant consequences. Checking Facebook instead of doing the dishes at home might earn him an argument with his partner. Checking Facebook at work instead of writing his quarterly report might get him fired. (And as far as I know, unhappy spouses and unemployment hurt a lot more than a C- on your high school transcript.)

Inhibition is also the skill that prevents other impulsive behaviors. For instance, in elementary school, good inhibition skills help a student remember to raise his hand instead of calling out in class. In middle or high school, inhibition helps a student to remember to check her answers on a test before handing it in. In college, students who have good skills to control impulsive behavior protect themselves from a whole world of potentially dangerous choices they could make. As you can see, the stakes increase over time.

What happens when emotion regulation skills are not developed?

Regulating emotions is another example of a skill that increases in importance over time. As a student, emotion regulation helps to keep your mind clear and focused even as you deal with the stress of three tests on the same day, or embarrassing gossip from fellow students, or from the glares of a teacher who just seems to have it out for you. When students feel consumed by any of these emotional distractions, it prevents them from solving the problems they represent: You freeze up on the tests rather than simply taking questions one at a time; you strain friendships rather than discussing the issues at hand; you quit on the teacher rather than working to get back into her good graces.

As with weaknesses in inhibition, the consequences only become more severe in adulthood. The same emotion regulation that keeps a student focused on tests in school keeps a disgruntled adult from posting a fiery Facebook screed about her employer (and then needing to find a new job when it goes viral).

Improving Executive Function skills (earlier rather than later)

To be clear, we’re not suggesting that earning a C- in Geometry and fighting with friends are unimportant. They’re definitely uncomfortable outcomes many students work to avoid — and, in many cases, the most important reason to avoid them is because of how these similar underlying issues can cause greater consequences down the road. In the same way that my weight gain wasn’t ideal but didn’t seem all that major (in all honesty, I hadn’t even noticed the half-a-pound-per-month accumulation), 60 pounds over the next decade could have significant detrimental effects on my health, longevity, and lifestyle. I had to begin working on maintaining a steady, healthy weight right away to avoid the more critical problems that may have been in store for me.  Executive Function skill sets are very similar.  Slight weaknesses might not yield catastrophic results, but left undeveloped, these same weaknesses can eventually bring about life-changing consequences.

Photo credit: Shutterstock.com

Does your child have trouble resisting the urge to check her phone when she's supposed to be doing homework — extending work time for hours?  Our free student guide helps kids understand the effects of distractions on their work and invites them to experiment with a new way to work effectively.

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