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The Ins and Outs of Executive Functioning

By: Behaviorally Speaking

girl practicing executive functioning by writing in notebook daily planner

About this Podcast Episode

On this episode, Angela and Kristin provide an overview of the common executive functioning skills that are important for childhood all the way through adulthood. They explain and give examples of skills such as time management, organization, planning and prioritization, focus and attention, and more.

About the Hosts

Angela Nelson, Ed.D., BCBA, and Kristin Bandi, MA, BCBA, are Board Certified Behavior Analysts with expertise on human behavior and child development. They spend their days working with parents and caregivers of both typically developing children as well as children with learning, social, and behavioral challenges, or developmental disabilities. This podcast is brought to you by RethinkCare

If you need support as a parent or caregiver of a child, we encourage you to ask your Human Resources team if RethinkCare is a part of your employer-provided benefits. RethinkCare reaches millions of lives globally through partnerships with top organizations and Fortune 1,000 companies. 


Welcome to episode 43 of Behaviorally Speaking, a podcast featuring Board Certified Behavior Analysts Angela Nelson and Kristin Bandi. On this episode, they talk about well-known skills like organization, time management, focus, and more. These skills all fall under the umbrella of the not-so-well-known name, “executive functions.” And now, here are your hosts, Angela Nelson and Kristin Bandi.

Angie: Hello and welcome to our 43rd episode of Behaviorally Speaking. I’m one of your hosts Angela Nelson, Board Certified Behavior Analyst and mother of two. 

Kristin: And I’m Kristen Bandi also a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and mother of three. Hello Angie. 

Angie: Hello, how goes it? 

Kristin: Oh, it’s good, we are filming this in December so that means that we’re attempting to prepare for the holidays. 

Angie: Yep. 

Kristin: And like right before we hosted this my sister sent me these really cute pictures that she ordered of like my kids and her daughter like all together for the grandparents and it was like all these things I was like. 

Angie: Aw that’s great. 

Kristin: Oh yeah, I’m a little behind buying Christmas stuff, um which is really highly appropriate for today’s topic, but I was just thinking about that I was like ah every year I tell myself and I don’t know you strike me as someone who shops in like March. 

Angie: I mean I’m not going to lie I am done with my Christmas shopping.

Kristin: I knew it man, so every year I tell myself it’s usually like October or even August, right? I’m like okay this is the year this is the year that I’m gonna be in November and I’m gonna go I feel good I did it I got it all done and then here we are two weeks, no almost ten days out and I’m not done not even close. 

Angie: Ah I mean Amazon is your friend, right?

Kristin: It’s true. Yeah, I had like a whole bunch come one day and it was like all together because it just did like one big purchase. Um and my husband was like boy things have changed huh? He’s like you could just get anything off the internet sent right to you and I was like ah so true.

Angie: I know I know but I feel like there is a tipping point, right? Because when you look at the delivery date. Sometimes it says might arrive before Christmas you know and so there. Yeah, there is a point where you know people cut it close but ah.

Kristin: Oh yeah, it’s going to be me. Yeah, I know I know it’s true.

Angie: Yeah, it is very appropriate for todays for today’s topic oh my gosh we didn’t even plan this we didn’t play on this this just happened.

Kristin: Life. It’s just life.

Angie: Ah well yeah so let’s get into it I think it probably goes without saying this is a topic that is both near and dear to my heart and yours we love this topic. We always talk about it. It’s part of our life and part of our work. So today we are going to be talking about the ins and outs of executive functioning. So as our regular listeners know we have talked about this topic um more deeply and kind of gone off in specific strands and really, I think uncovered you know kind of to the depths of certain aspects of executive functioning we’re going to so you know. For example, we’ve had a what is it called, ah how to get organized or Let’s Get Organized.

Kristin: Let’s Get Organized, right.

Angie: Let’s Pay Attention. We did one on flexibility and yeah impulse control. So, we’ve done several of them um at a murky level, but we realized that gosh every day we talk about executive functioning. But kind of dawned on us that we didn’t have more of a high level just what is executive functioning and what are the different components of it so we’re gonna do more of an educational piece today. Not going to be so much diving into solutions but really kind of like what is it and um yeah we’re excited to dive into this one today.

Kristin: Yeah, and I think it could be so helpful if maybe listeners are like I don’t exactly know what that is, like Angie said educational, but then also understanding if they’re areas of strength and challenge for your kids I feel like it’s always this might be a great way to do that.

Angie: Um yeah and for you too, right? Like do you have complimentary executive functioning skills or not to your child.

Kristin: Yeah, right? Oh yeah exactly? Yeah, oh it’s so true I mean I think we think of like um you know all of what is it the personality tests that you can do right and people like really want to take a deep dive into themselves. But it’s like this is an area that you could also explore, and it could be so helpful for everyone.

What is Executive Functioning? 

Kristin: Ok well we’re going to start just by talking about what exactly executive function is because I think it could be confusing for some people. So essentially, it’s the executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus, pay attention, remember things and then of course maybe juggle multiple tasks. So, ah it’s a lot of skills that that fall onto this big under this big category.

Angie: Yeah, absolutely I know you’re going to dive into where those skills come from and kind of the brain and stuff like that in a minute, but I think it is important to just kind of give that blanket definition right? Because a misnomer the name executive function, executive functioning. It’s kind of a funny term right? because a lot of people think it has to do with the workplace, right? an executive or you know what kind of skills. Do you have for strategic planning or budgeting, and I mean there’s definitely overlap for sure. But ah yeah, we just want to make sure that it’s clear that it can apply to kids too. It’s basically just all those skills to kind of get stuff done and get organized. So yeah, just wanted to throw that in there.

Kristin: Yeah and also, I think sometimes people will say like it’s the CEO of your brain, right? So, like it’s and we’ll dive into that. But yeah I mean it is. It’s kind of closely related but you’re absolutely right? that people will say like well my child doesn’t need executive functioning skills. They don’t have a job right? And then there we are, there’s the first point of confusion I’m glad you called that out.

Top Skills of Executive Functioning 

Kristin: So, when Angie and I were looking at this I know when we were looking at this, we were saying boy everybody kind of looks at it a little bit different in terms of what skills they feel they are the top five if you will and so it’s going to look a little bit different but some of the basic skills and ones that we’ve done a lot of our episodes on are going to be things like paying attention. So that’s attention focus of course organization and planning so prioritizing tasks very important starting tasks potentially and then staying focused on them is always pretty tricky ah managing emotions. That’s definitely something that fits into this category of executive function and then of course keeping track of things, right? Keeping track of what you’re doing keeping track of your belongings so all of those are going to fall under executive function and something else that I want to point out so two more things I’ll point out here.

3 Main Umbrellas of Executive Functioning 

Kristin: Ah another thing I want to point out is we also see in the research a lot of experts will say well yes there’s executive function, right? And then we have these big umbrellas, big umbrella topics that fit under executive function and there’s so there’s three main ones. So, it’s going to be working memory and essentially, it’s just as it sounds right? So, it’s the ability to retain and then recall information so you’re going to store the information and then you can use it when you need it and then we have cognitive flexibility. And this is what we hear sometimes is flexible thinking and really this is just the ability to think about things in a different way right? So, there’s more than one way of doing things and there’s more than one way, more than one idea is good. Um so that’s definitely one that’s important. And then finally the third umbrella we hear about often is inhibitory control and so this is the or sometimes called self-control. So yeah so it’s the ability to ignore distractions and resist temptation. So certainly can be a really crucial skill for everybody where no matter where they are right to the home workplace school and in social situations. We’re going to see that these three main buckets of skills are going to be really important.

Angie: And then so it sounds like what you say what? You’re saying is that paying attention, organizing, managing emotions. All that stuff, those kind of fit in one of those three buckets essentially? 

Kristin: Yeah exactly. So, if you kind of looked at it like a hierarchy you have executive functioning on the top right? And then you have those three umbrellas, those three buckets if you will and then all the skills that we’ll talk about today are going to fit into those right? So, they’re kind of like they go into those big categories. Yeah you know so and then one more thing before we get into you know taking a little bit of a deeper dive we got to spend a little time on neuroscience. Um and just to give you ah just a little bit more of an understanding of how the brain works right? So, and I had mentioned like the CEO of the brain. So the part of the brain that controls executive functioning skills is called the prefrontal frontal cortex and so this falls within the frontal lobe and I always like to tell parents that this is actually the last part of the brain to develop. So the whole thing develops from the back bottom all the way to the top to the front and so it’s the last thing to develop and so sometimes and a lot of the research will tell you well kids don’t actually have the skills associated with executive functioning. They don’t have those fully developed until they’re 25.

Angie: Yeah I know when I read that I was just I was shocked I mean you kind of make sense though right like risk taking, yeah.

Kristin: Yeah oh, you think about some things you hear? Yeah things you hear about like 17, 18, 19 you’re like shouldn’t you know by now and it’s like well maybe not so yeah cut on some slack a little bit so. 

Angie: Yeah.

Kristin: And then one thing I wanted to mention that ah we see a lot in the research that people that are diagnosed with ADHD [Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder] they have noticeable differences in this part of their brain right? So that’s why we see more distractibility, forgetfulness, impulsivity, poor planning, and sometimes hyperactivity and we’ll see that in both children and adults but it is due to the differences in parts of their brain.

Angie: Yeah absolutely that’s kind of a good segue to um we when we think about executive functioning some of these skills start to develop in um infancy right? And in in early childhood some a little bit later than others and then to your point they’re still kind of developing until early adulthood. Um but you know there are a lot of things we’re going to, we’ve kind of gone into this in other podcasts too, being able to model good executive functioning being able to kind of coach your child um one of our favorite books that we’ll talk a little bit about later too. But the Smart But Scattered series. They talk about kind of lending your ah frontal lobe to your kids. Um you know and kind of helping them build that skill set is going to be really important but you know there are situations where challenges do arise and maybe it’s outside of the scope of kind of traditional developmental milestones. Yeah so it is important to just as a little side note to mention to kind of look out for those things right? So if your child is developing at a different rate than maybe there are peers um or they just seem so much more distractible or they just they keep forgetting their homework or you know it’s impacting their school life or their social life. That’s when you want to maybe start taking that to the doctor um or reaching out to other professionals and saying gosh you know we may have an issue here. Um you know you touched on ADHD before um and I think it’s important to mention that not everybody that has challenges with executive functioning um has ADHD but ah it’s safe to say that the majority of people diagnosed with ADHD struggle in this area at least in a couple of these buckets of executive functions. So um yeah just know that you know have some patience and understand that it takes a while long time for these skills to develop but if it seems outside the realm of what’s developmentally appropriate. It’s good to chat with your doctor.

Kristin: Yeah that’s such a good call out and I like the way you phrase it right? like everyone who has challenges with executive functioning doesn’t necessarily have a formal diagnosis of ADHD but there are some challenges and I think something in a lot of times parents will say like well how do I know right? Like how do I know if they if I do need to get to get you know some sort of assessment done and ah something that has stuck with me that I learned a while back is someone had said ADHD is not about knowing what to do right? It’s about doing what you know. And so I feel like that’s really a powerful message

Angie: Yeah.

Kristin: And so I think if you’re teaching your kids you know you go back and you listen to all of our episodes on the you know the topics that we’ve talked about and you’re doing all of those things and you’re saying hm, they have all the tools we’ve gone through it we can roleplay it.

Angie: Yeah they’re smart kids.

Kristin: Yes, but for some reason they’re just not doing it Well then potentially maybe we need to talk to our doctor. So, you know I feel like that could be That’s always a good way to kind of look at it.

Angie: Um yeah that’s I think you’re calling out what you’re when I’m kind of teasing out of that is um it’s not if it’s not a skill deficit right? Like if they have the skills you’ve taught them, they know how to do it. They can demonstrate it in certain environments. But Um you know in general they’re not um yeah that’s when you know that maybe something else is going on.

Executive Functioning Skills 


Kristin: Yep yeah exactly? Okay so let’s go through just some of the skills that I mentioned earlier and we’re going to talk a little bit about those just so you get a better understanding of what they are. So no surprise I’m going to start with organization I always start with this one and every single topic or every presentation I do or every conversation with parents I always say let’s just start with organization. Let’s see where we are and so essentially it makes sense right? Organization is the way that we organize our environment our thoughts our belongings and ah of course all the skills that we’re going to talk about are essential to development and learning but sometimes I feel that that organization is just more crucial and I think the reason for that is because when you’re hopefully right when you’re organized and you’ve got things in their proper place. Maybe you’re more likely to be able to manage your time and then stay focused so I tend to start there. Yeah.

Angie: Yeah I like that it’s, so it sounds like it’s not just it’s internal and external what you’re saying. It’s not just or your stuff. But it’s also organizing your thoughts too.

Kristin: Um oh yes oh totally and one of the big things about this I’ll so I’ll say to parents is. You know sometimes kids will look really organized on the outside right? Like they might their backpack might be in in order you know things might be in the right place but they have a really hard time writing an essay for example or just telling a story in a logical way. It’s like wait hold on what wait you went there and then there then whoa you bounce back here. Um so I feel like if that’s the case like that’s trouble with organization but it doesn’t it doesn’t present itself in the way that like their backpack is a disaster right? Like that’s screaming at you, my child is not organized but the other one It’s like well I don’t know and so it’s a little bit more hidden. So yeah.

Angie: Um right? Yeah I like that.

Kristin: So, either way I think kids who have trouble with organization. We’re obviously going to see this impact them in a variety of places and with certain tasks. They’re probably going to misplace things a little bit more um and then therefore you know if they’re not putting them back in the right place they’re going to have a hard time locating those things so that can cause some challenges they might have trouble maybe creating routines or even sticking to those routines because you know they might be like okay I’m going to do this I’m going to you know keep all of my ah papers in this way and then a couple days later they’re not like that at all.

Angie: Yeah.

Kristin: So you know um a sidebar actually had a ah well I had a client like this and this also came up on one of our clinical meetings. But um I was talking to a parent and they were saying that you know we went through the room and we cleaned it. We cleaned the whole room together and we spent so much time cleaning the room and then two days later it was an absolute disaster again and they’re like I really thought that I was like showing them here’s how you clean your room and then it turns out that there was just not a good organizational system. So this is something I try to do with my kids all the time. So I try to say okay there is a place for everything right? So all of your you know darts go in this bin and all of your Legos go in this bin right?

Angie: I Like how you chose darts of all things.

Kristin: Like ah there are Nerf darts all over my house everywhere. In fact there’s probably one within my eyesight if I were to look around right now here everywhere.

Angie: Oh. 

Kristin: So yeah just you know coming up with ways to like create organizational systems I think will be huge um and then and then finally on this I think and I kind of pointed alluded to it a little bit earlier but I think sometimes people think they’re really organized right? And they’re not noticing where those deficits are and an example that might resonate with an adult right like in the workplace might be if you try to locate something on your computer and you’re like ah oh no like the search feature is not working I have no idea where that’s stored or everything is stored on my desktop only right? And it’s just like a disaster but this person might think well I’m pretty organized. You know like I’ve got some folders on my desktop I’ve got I got a system right? But like is that system working for you I think that’s the big thing. Um. 

Angie: Right? Yeah that’s kind of the crux of it. Yeah I um, I when you’re talking about the workplace I also think of someone’s desk you know might be clean but then let’s say they’re having a conversation or giving a presentation and they are bouncing all over the place and it’s hard to follow them and I don’t know my first knee jerk reaction to be is to be like am I tired why am I not following this person but that you know could also be a symptom of poor organization they just they’re not able to organize their thoughts in kind of a coherent way. So that’s important. Yeah.

Kristin: Um yeah definitely yeah and in one of the thing I will say I think I said this earlier but I hear a lot from parents that when kids get older, so now we’re talking like teens and even like preparing for college, like writing an essay that’s even one of the times where parents are like you know I really didn’t catch it until now until we’re having to like really put things down on paper and my child’s really struggling with this.

Angie: Yeah I’m having a hard time holding back from giving strategies, are you? You’re like look at my graphic organizer! 

Kristin: Yes this is really difficult, so get out your planner.

Angie: Yeah. 

Kristin: Motivation, look at the motivation.

Angie: Um ah about impulse control right? Can’t control it. Oh yes I’m sitting on my hands. Nope today is all about just education around. Yeah informational session. Yes okay all right? So that, yes so that is organization good stuff. Um super important.

Angie: Um the next one that we’ll dive into, well actually are you is that good. Do you wrap up everything you needed to for that one? 

Kristin: Oh yeah, no that’s good.

Angie: Okay cool.

Time Management 

Angie: So going into the next one, time management. So, what is the kind of loose definition of this. Essentially this is our ability to be able to do a couple things so estimate the time that is allotted to you or available to you to complete something you need to do. It’s also your ability to decide how you spend your time, so this is something that I know parents get frustrated about like you are not being efficient with your time or wasting time right. Um it’s our ability to be able to kind of operate if you will within the allotted time that you have um and this is one that I get frustrated about with certain individuals in my home around having a sense of time urgency right? Like we need to go to school in 10 minutes and you’re still in your PJs like what’s going on. So um yeah so there’s definitely a variety of different components to having good time management. In um you know but if you have teenagers this is something that in the Smart But Scattered Teenager edition book that we love so much one of the things that the authors talk about is common issues. I would say this is not just with teenagers but it could transcend other age groups too but underestimating how long it takes to do a task especially if it’s non-preferred. That’s a big a big challenge for a lot of people and then also overestimating how much time they think that they have to complete a task so we see this with kids.

Kristin: Oh total mismatch there. Yeah.

Angie: It’s a total mismatch. It’s some underestimating and overestimating um Kristen you and I know because we do executive functioning coaching and neurodiversity consultation. This is a really common thing that comes up quite a bit as people recognize it too like I just I run out of time I’m losing all track of time I just didn’t a lot enough time and you have you came up with a ah oh gosh there I do there I’m doing it again. I’m going into solution mode but I have to just say this You know the say it the time detective strategy right? like being able to kind of I Don’t know you tell it you tell it you tell it?

Kristin: Yeah well I think that it’s the first step here is to help your child appropriately estimate How long things take and so the best way to do that is a little mini assessment right? So you write down a few things and you say how long do you think that’s going to take you and you’d be so surprised sometimes by kids they’re like oh it’s going to take me five minutes you’re like five minutes to do sixty math problems or you know it could be like something so outrageous and then it’s like okay well let’s write that down and let’s do it, let’s see how long it takes and it’s interesting to see the discrepancies but I think it goes to the two things you’re saying right? You can see Is my child actually just underestimating how long things take or do they you know, are they overestimating in some way underestimating or overestimating I think that’s you know it’s a good way to find that out.

Angie: Right? Yeah definitely and then the time of that sense of urgency I think is important too. I think for all of these I’ll just this is kind of a random place to make this conclusion but I’ll just state it here and then maybe again at the end if I my working memories intact. 

Kristin: Ooh I like what you did there.

Angie: But um I ah I think it’s important to kind of assess right? like when you look at all these different skills, assess where the challenges are that’s a good first step right? and then figure out what the barriers are is it a skill issue. Do you need to model it, do you need to teach it more explicitly right and kind of help coach your kids along. So yeah so that time detective or just kind of assessing, are they overestimating or they underestimating? You wouldn’t believe how many parents I just talked to someone actually the other day. They have a toddler and they were saying well I tell him he’s got 10 minutes to do this or I’m going to be on the phone for 10 minutes and I had to explain you know a toddler does not have concept of how long 10 minutes feels right? 

Kristin: No yeah.

Angie: So when we’re talking about time management understanding that there’s developmental process and we can’t expect our you know a three year old to really have good time management skills. So, a lot of these that’s you know to your earlier point. It’s why it takes so long for a lot of these to fully develop so we do need to educate ourselves generally speaking around what’s developmentally appropriate when. You know had some of these expectations.

Kristin: Yeah I kind of was thinking I’ve heard parents say before like it’s going to take one TV show right?

Angie: Yeah there you go. That’s a good idea though. Yeah. Yeah.

Kristin: You’re like, oh okay yeah like one one show that’s how long we’re going to be in the car ride for right? Like not that they’re watching a show in the car but like they understand what that feels like. So yeah I think that one can be so important good okay well let’s keep it moving.

Planning and Prioritizing 

Kristin: Ah so next we’ll talk a little bit about planning and prioritizing. So, this, you know these can be sometimes they can go hand in hand. But I’m going to separate them out for you. So planning is it’s essentially it’s the ability to think about all the tasks that are required in order to achieve a goal right? So it could be a goal could be a project and so we’re taking all those things and we’re just creating a plan and then prioritizing though a little bit different So it’s gonna be the ability to know that you are completing the right tasks in the right way in order to get all that work accomplished and so I feel like it’s I don’t know I mean they’re both kind of tricky. I think it’s important to see where your kids are at with these like how well can they plan. Maybe they can really they can plan really well but they can’t execute it right? So like they can come up with this grand plan. But then execution is where they fail or maybe they are able to um set a really big goal but they just can’t break that down into a plan. 

Angie: Yeah. 

Kristin: So you know I think it’s about trying to figure out where your child is here with these but both two, two really crucial skills.

Angie: Yeah that’s important especially this is an important skill to develop in the kid years right? because as they get older and then they start having longer term projects. That might take a whole semester. You can’t wait till the last night to plan that out you got to kind of break it into chunks and I mean this transcends into the workplace right? If you were never taught how to plan and prioritize you’re going to have probably ah a tricky time when you’re you know when you’re an adult and you’re trying to work on a project and you can’t triage you know how to kind of prioritize like emergency situations versus like I can do it next week. So yeah really important one.

Kristin: Yeah there’s a really good I think maybe you shared this with me. Um this is totally coming in my mind so I’m going to mess up the words but you remember there was this TED Talk that I think you had sent to me about somebody that works as an yeah ER doctor or nurse.

Angie: Oh yeah that was me.

Kristin: Yeah and I that was it’s really great. So, you’re just going to have to look it up something about you know. 

Angie: You’re going to have to try to search what we’re talking about.

Kristin: TED Talk yeah TED Talk ER nurse ah talks about how everything is on fire right? Or everything’s a fire, um but I really liked the way that she broke it down because.

Kristin: I think for many people, and I will say many people with ADHD have expressed to me everything’s a fire. Everything is high priority. So how do you expect me to prioritize my to do list when everything is a everything is like a priority right? So but it’s about how do we figure out and I think this is super applicable to kids um particularly kids who feel maybe as you had mentioned like older kids as they get really stressed and they’re feeling like oh I’ve got all these things that I have to do and everything feels like a priority and so I think it’s so crucial to start teaching our kids and our teens how to understand what really is high priority maybe middle priority and like low priority right? I feel like that’s like one of the best things to do. 

Angie: Absolutely and I found it ah because I can’t just yeah, we can’t just like move. It’s ah Dr. Darria Long, um yeah An ER doctor on triaging your “crazy busy” life TED Talk yeah there you go, you’re welcome. 

Kristin: Perfect there you go look at those skills get those search skills. 

Angie: Yeah, oh ok well so moving on to another really important one, attention and focus. So, I mean gosh they’re also so important, but I feel like this one pops up quite a bit in the school age years. Well even in the adults that we that we work with too. But, um so attention and focus definitely this comes into play with being able to not only approach tasks but also, kind of execute the tasks and go to completion with those tasks as well. So, the definition really is our ability to stay on task in order to get it done despite a couple other environmental factors, right? Um, internal and external. So, it might be distractions, it could also be fatigue or just being tired or boredom. That’s another really important one too, right? I don’t want to do this, I’m not intrinsically motivated to do this. So, it’s easier to kind of get pulled away so this ah might be that your child is but or this might look like your child having a bunch of half-done projects or half completed tasks ah difficulty finishing homework and then getting pulled away at the slightest distraction, right? The dog runs by and then they just oh hold on I gotta, he really wants me to play with him. You know so they go off and do other things that they maybe prefer to do this also can be a frustrating one for parents because we often find ourselves constantly being on them right? Come on I got to go, we’ve got to finish Up, we got to finish our dinner, you got to finish your homework. So, um this one is definitely a tricky one. And hard when kids are in school in particular.

Kristin: Yeah, oh man it’s so closely related to the next one that as you were going through it, I was like oh these kind of go hand in hand. Um I mean it makes sense that you know kind of Ah kind of more you know talking more about task completion the next one that we were going to talk about as task initiation, and you know I think that they really do go hand in hand. So we’ll just kind of, we’ll put them together. 

Task Initiation 

Kristin: So, with task initiation I think this is kind of the starter obviously for, um completing the tasks. But with this one essentially, it’s the ability to motivate yourself, right? So to get started on those tasks and therefore being able to kind of direct your actions or your behaviors in that way and so I think that you know kind of what you would said difficulty finishing homework one thing that you might notice if your child has trouble in this area is maybe difficulty getting started with their homework right or I hear all the time from parents if I could just get them out the door to go to practice They’re fine when they get there right? So, there’s a variety of things, right? But essentially kind of getting started on the things that they need to do can be really tricky for kids. 

Angie: Yeah.

Kristin: And to take it just one step further. Just one thing I want to mention because I think it’s really important to get curious with your kids and understand why they’re not initiating certain tasks right? Because there could be various reasons but one of the ones that I hear about all the time is past failures. So, if every time I start my homework, I fail would I want to start my homework ever again, right? or you know every time I show up for that soccer game I fall down, right? Well, I don’t want to go to that soccer game. So, I think it’s so important and there’s of course many other reasons why kids might fail to initiate tasks right? like they’ not motivated or they got distracted like you said um, but I think it’s really important to just kind of understand why they might be failing to get started on these things.

Angie: Yeah, absolutely kind of goes back to what we were talking about earlier just you know assessing the barriers. Do they not have the skills to do it? Are they, was there a past experience? Yeah, this one’s a tricky one, um yeah might need to break down the skill into smaller steps. Okay there I’m doing it again I feel like that character on SNL think it’s played by Kristen Wiig you know, or she can’t Keep this surprise and she has to put her turtleneck over her head like wok, I really want to say it I say it.

Kristin: Oh man that is so funny.

Angie: So okay we’re getting silly.

Self-Control, Response Inhibition, and Emotional Control 

Angie: All right So moving on. We’ve got a couple more we put these ones together because they are so closely related depending on where you read about executive functioning, they may be together, they may be separated. So, talking about self-control and response inhibition and then also emotional control too. So, with response inhibition that’s where we might That’s kind of that more formal word for being able to kind of control your behavior is kind of self-control right? It’s the ability to think before speaking um resist temptation think about kind of choices and consequences of our behavior before we act. As you may assume this is arguably the most important of the executive functioning skills especially for teenagers, right? when they’re um presented with a lot of risks and potentially risky behaviors. There’s less supervision and things like that So being able to kind of control ourselves Is an important skill and then when we think about and in terms of segueing from behavior to kind of internal and processes.

Angie: So emotional control, So that’s our ability to regulate our emotions maybe select the emotion that’s appropriate For any given situation that can kind of drive and guide our actions and then being able to kind of manage and maintain emotions under pressure so kind of staying cool calm and collect it not kind of just ah you know blowing up um at the drop of a hat. So, another really important kind of one kind of mishmashed together.

Kristin: Oh yeah and you know you had mentioned that you know where this kind of pops up for teens certainly in terms of just getting things done or you said like risk taking behavior, I also see this a lot with social relationships right? So, with young kids and then also teens something that I hear about quite often is those that have trouble with self-control, it’s interfering with them making connections with friends and you know because kids are like ah, he’s too close. He’s jumping on me, right? And they don’t necessarily want that and so I feel like this is a really, it’s difficult if your child has trouble in this area. Um you know in terms of that self-control.

Angie: Yeah that’s so important too I didn’t think about that I was thinking more of if there’s a kid that’s always blowing up when they lose at handball or something eventually kids are going to say like oh I don’t really want that person to play, they’re just it’s kind of dramatic, but you’re right there’s um maybe like a lack of self-awareness around that physical control in your physical body right? like you want to just be close and hang on your friends and some kids my kids are very huggy but my older daughter has a friend in particular and she always tells me oh she does not want to be hugged but now she allows me one hug per day.

Kristin: Aww. 

Angie: And I’m like yeah you got to respect your personal space, but they came up with some sort of like a compromise I guess but yeah, it’s a that’s a good point that you bring up to you just like physical behaviors. Yeah.

Kristin: Um totally and your daughter has the self-awareness to recognize like this other peer doesn’t like hugs and I think that that’s the point, right? Like some kids just don’t have that and they don’t notice it and then it you know and interferes with their friendships.

Angie: Yeah well, I think this this little girl had to tell Lily, it was like she yeah, now she respects the boundary.

Kristin: But ah okay well good for the other girl, right? Self-advocacy. 

Angie: Yeah, definitely yeah.

Flexible Thinking 

Kristin: Well, speaking of things that could potentially interfere with friendships, the next one is flexible thinking and this one comes up a lot and I feel like again you know some of these things can be quite developmentally appropriate right? So, like just kind of some of the growing pains of growing right? And so being able to kind of think differently to solve problems and adjust to new situations learning from mistakes, some of those things are naturally hard but kids learn them right and they get better at them. Some other things may be coping when the routine changes or even being worried about trying new things, um switching from one task to another. So, this is another area where we see that kids who struggle in this area are going to have difficulty with all the things I just listed.

Angie: Yeah.

Kristin: So yeah I think that it’s definitely important that we kind of call some of those specific skills out within flexible thinking so you can get a better understanding of okay is my child you know sometimes they’re flexible but sometimes they’re not or maybe they’re not at all flexible and this is one of the big areas that I need to focus on as a parent.

Angie: Um yeah this one’s got a lot of stuff jam packed into it I didn’t you know before I was looking more into executive functioning, I didn’t realize that this is this was one of the things under that umbrella, but this is a big one that definitely comes up so yeah. 

Kristin: Well this one, what’s interesting about flexible thinking is obviously for many years now I have hosted the same webinar on executive functioning skills and flexible thinking I didn’t even have in there um for the first couple of years and then I was you know doing more research reading more books and I was like wow flexible thinking is like one of the crucial pieces to executive functioning and you know kind of it’s everything kind of all in one and the ability to just kind of like cope and problem solve and it’s really tough. Um so yeah, I think this one’s very important.

Angie: Did you put it in your presentation for next time? 

Kristin: Sure, did oh yeah. 

Angie: Okay I was going to say you don’t host the same when you host on the same topic, but it gets better and better every year. 

Kristin: Yes, it’s different, it’s different every year, yeah, no we’ve got flexible thinking in there now. Yes, for sure.

Angie: Because you are flexible. You adapt. 

Kristin: I adapted my presentation, yes.

Working Memory 

Angie: Yes, oh okay so we’ve got two more before we wrap it up so talking about working memory. This is our ability to hold information in our minds while we’re doing different tasks. Maybe they’re more complex tasks. So, this could be something like let’s say at work listening to a conversation then taking that information, maybe synthesizing it, putting it into some bullets and notes and sending it out to the group. It also involves drawing on our past experiences and learning to um our experiences and our learning to kind of influence and drive behavior that comes in the future. So, this is you know a quintessential example of that is learning some more fundamental school skills things like you know reading or writing or math and then as school typically goes you build on those simpler concepts and continue onward so working memory is definitely an important one for life, well, they all are right? But I’m thinking this one in particular for school too.

Kristin: Yeah, and this one actually is I feel like very important when kids when parents want their kids to be more independent right? So, like go get ready for bed or go get ready for school, right? And then we’re relying kids have to rely on their working memory like well what do I need to do like what are all the steps that I need to do and a lot of times parents like well they did everything but they just keep forgetting to brush their teeth or they keep forgetting to you know put socks on or I’ve actually had parents tell me like my kid went to school without underwear today, you know 

Angie: Oh, we have done that in our family multiple times I’m just like flabbergasted. 

Kristin: Ah you’re like how did that happen? Um yeah so, I think that you know working memory presents itself and in many different opportunities presents itself multiple times a day to use our working memory. So yeah, certainly a crucial one as well. 

Angie: It’s yeah that’s a good parallel that you draw to I think to getting ready my kids they wear like a badge a badge of honor that they have both when they were in preschool forgot to go to school with underwear and I get phone calls and just like walking and embarrassing you know embarrassingly oh sorry. So, but yes that that was a prompt to work on that and a little bit more in our family. 

Kristin: Yeah oh one other thing I was just thinking about this too, so we probably do this often? Yeah, I’m sure you do as well as a mom, right? Like what are all the things I have to know for my kids’ school right? So, like okay this week is like gift shopping 

Angie: Oh yes.

Kristin: And then we’ve got tomorrow’s Grinch day, and you know like we have all these things that we kind of store in our information are in our brains, but I feel it- 

Angie: Mental load.

Kristin: Yes, yeah and I think kids and teens have to do this too right? Like hey don’t forget to remind your parents that there’s a field trip tomorrow or this week or you know so I feel like that also is part of it where they have to just kind of remember everything that’s going on in their lives or that birthday party is this weekend and so it certainly comes up a lot.

Angie: Yeah, that’s a great point and I think that’s um as kids get older at least in our house. That’s what I’ve been trying to do to kind of get some of the mental load off of me is to put some more of that onto the kids. So, I have I think I’ve mentioned this in previous podcasts and it’s certainly a big issue this time of year with all the different holidays and all that you know like present it you know gift exchanges and things like that. I’ll say look there are certain things I’m just not going to be managing anymore I can’t keep it all in my memory can’t keep it all my brain like the ah um spirit days, right? Like on this day you’re going to wear whatever it is like I just you know when they’re in kindergarten it was oh gotta do it all. But there are certain things where it’s like okay you need to, I’m going to pass that on to you can hold it in your working memory for Friday remember to wear pigtails or something like that because I just can’t I got to transfer that over to your frontal lobe.

Kristin: Yeah and then if your kid can’t do it. There’s lots of strategies you can put in place.

Angie: Ah, don’t say it. 

Metacognition and Self-monitoring 

Kristin: Ah yes okay well we have just one more actually? Um and this one is interesting. So, I know you and I were kind of going through some of the literature and we always find ourselves in the Smart But Scattered books. And so one thing that we were like wow metacognition and self-monitoring. We didn’t necessarily have that in in our conversation for today, but we added it in because it’s really important and so metacognition is essentially knowing what you’re thinking right? So, knowing your thinking styles and so being able to know your strengths. Um and so I think that it’s just so important to kind of to understand yourself a little bit better like we said in the beginning and then ah and then also important the ability to have self-awareness of how you’re doing in the moment right? And then maybe make some adjustments of your actions or your behaviors to the current situation. This one an example I can think of just right off the top of my head is sometimes you know how people might say like I’m sorry I’m rambling right?

Angie: Yeah.

Kristin: Like and then they’re recognizing I’ve been talking for a really long time, and I didn’t share the space, right? I didn’t give anybody else the opportunity to talk so that person might be you know engaging in self-monitoring. They’re recognizing that they probably need to make a shift. Um and so this is a really important skill.

Angie: Yes, I love that one. Yeah, I think that’s one of the ones that’s often missed from. It’s not as tangible right? It’s totally kind of in your mind. So yeah, that’s good.

Kristin: Yeah, so good call out, good call that one.

Callouts and Thanks

Angie: Yeah. Alright so we’re kind of one and done here. We got to give a speaking of callouts or shoutouts we got to give a shout out to the people that we love, they don’t know we exist. But if they ever contacted us one day, we would just be so elated. But um Dr. Richard Guare, Dr. Peg Dawson Smart But Scattered books a lot of the content that we draw from our podcast is certainly today’s comes from Smart But Scattered so our top three books, the Smart But Scattered, there’s Smart But Scattered Teens, which is literally right next to me on my desk I got to return it to the library, and then um Smart But Scattered Guide to Success which is for adults. Because like we said you know it takes until about age 25 but still there are challenges that can pervade through the lifespan. So definitely a lot of strategies packed in those books. And then of course we’ve done a ton of podcasts that you can find that dive really deeply into strategies. You know as a recap This was really just more informational on what is executive functioning and all the different areas under the umbrella.

Kristin: Yeah, they also have a really good website too. So, when I was creating the presentation years back? Um, which is always evolving. They have a lot of just like printable materials on there and just like articles and checklists. 

Angie: Um ah yeah assessments too. Yeah.

Kristin: Yeah assessments. So, they’ve got a lot of really good stuff on there. Definitely check them out another book that I recommend, and this is for a little bit younger of an audience, but it’s called Learning To Slow Down & Pay Attention. Ah it’s by Ellen Dixon and Kathleen Nadeau perhaps “nadu”. Yeah, that’s right? 

Angie: How do you spell it?

Kristin: N-A-D-E-A-U, Nadeau. 

Angie: Yeah.

Kristin: Maybe she’ll write in and be like hey this is how you say it. 

Angie: Yeah. 

Kristin: A great book. What I love about that book and a lot of parents have told me this is in the very beginning of the book. There is an assessment so you can essentially go in and see where your where your child lands with all the skills that we talked about and sometimes it’s an eye opener. You know you might be like oh I didn’t even know that that they thought that they were weak in this area I actually thought they were strong in this area, right and then vice versa. So yeah so, I feel like that could be really helpful too.

Getting Starting with Executive Functioning 

Kristin: So one more thing before we go, I know that we you know we couldn’t dive into all the strategies today and I know we know we did a little bit but definitely ah if you’re having concerns and you’re kind of hearing some of the things that we talked about today and maybe a lot of these areas are kind of popping up and you’re like ooh I want to work on all of them at once or oh no my child has you know challenges in many of these areas I Just urge you to start with one at a time, right? So, we don’t want to just change everything right away or a lot of times I’ll say don’t just try to implement 10 different strategies at once just to hope that we kind of you know get these skills going. I say just slow down pick one area, let’s explore that, let’s observe your child, see you know where their deficits lie and then we can build strategies from there. 

Angie: Ooh that is such a good reminder, love that.

Kristin: All right? Well, that’s going to do it everyone thanks for joining for joining us on our forty third episode of Behaviorally Speaking on our next episode we will be talking about creating harmony among different parenting styles until then don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast on your favorite platform, so you never miss an episode. 

You’ve been listening to Behaviorally Speaking, with Angela Nelson and Kristin Bandi, brought to you by RethinkCare. Find out more at You can find past podcast episodes under the Resources tab. We also invite you to subscribe, follow, like, and leave us feedback wherever you listen to podcasts. Your feedback helps us prepare topics and content for future episodes. Until next time, have a great day.

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