The Impact of Executive Function: Getting “IT” When it Counts

Hugh Brent Solvason, Ph.D., M.D., Cheryl Thompson, M.S. CCC/SLP, Lynn Houle

Executive Function:

Although we generally describe executive function as some version of higher order thinking, such as flexible or analytic thinking, planning and organizing, these attributes give way to organizing thoughts, emotions, actions, and self monitoring. The capability of knowing when we’ve pushed or ventured too far intellectually, emotionally, or physically, is valuable for our physical and emotional well being. We would generally view this as an internal process that observes and evaluates things we think about, know about, and observe. However, the “higher order thinking”, that has the greatest impact on any individual’s life, is not what you might think. Higher order thinking, processing and analyzing is useless if you cannot make sense of, or participate with others in daily life. The ability to participate and navigate our complex social world is the key to happiness and well being.

Executive function is a key player in organizing our social experiences in many different situations and contexts; remembering them for later use. It allows for observation and comparison to previous experiences, assumptions and conclusions regarding what is currently happening and in anticipation of what might happen in the near or distant future. In addition, creating and implementing adjustments that avoid failure and very possibly increase success. Executive function can be extremely complex, change rapidly and evolve with an entirely different set of rules and possible outcomes. How those changes and increasingly complex experiences are processed and internalized, directly impacts our ability to grow and learn.

From the standpoint of the individual who is struggling, there is no sense or understanding to be made of what everyone else seems to know instinctively. There is a gap between the struggler and their peers at home, at school, at work, with siblings, or with significant others. Within this gap, is a confusing world that seems arbitrary, full of misunderstanding and being misunderstood. Following misunderstanding is frequently punishment for not “getting it right”. This punishment often appears arbitrary, promotes anxiety, and reveals nor promotes insight or understanding, including how to avoid more unpleasantness.

In terms of understanding and monitoring the struggler, the bullet points below summarize how executive function processes are used within the social context.

Development of Self-Awareness:

This is not a simple “fix”. Adults take a long time to develop a sense of self, which is aware and understands who we are in different contexts. The range of relationships and connections to others range from family, friends, work, intimate relationships, etc. When you think about it, this is a sophisticated and undervalued function. Sophisticated enough that it often fails us. How we react, repair, or respond doesn’t always fit our version of who we “think” we are. This leads to our own confusion, frustration, and sometimes failure.

How much self-awareness do we expect the struggler to utilize? To what degree? Is our evaluation based on our perspective and expectation? When developing or agreeing on a “baseline” where we meet in understanding, what is it based on? Our assumptions of would have, should have, could have? Or have we even bothered to figure out where things are falling apart? The struggler doesn’t necessarily have the knowledge of where things are “breaking down”, nor how or where to “back up” and find that place where we understand each other.

Our challenge is in our expectations. We tend to make demands for individual participation and function. When we make demands for the struggler to function at a competent capacity; the failure isn’t a choice, but an absence of awareness and skill. The demand to function as though “they can already do it”, never expresses function or success, but always failure.

We are reminded how ineffective this approach is when a struggler fails to internalize, understand, or utilize inferred, assumed, or unspoken rules at home, school, or unfamiliar environments. They will demonstrate where they are in understanding when they fail. Confused by demands for actions that are expected, demands to conform or demanding that they follow along will be received as punishing, arbitrary, loud, or shaming. If the struggler understood there were options, we can assume they would be using it.

We have not taken advantage of the power of the neural systems that underlie these capacities to shape behavior with strugglers. The default for parents in our society and many others is to use language to establish rules of behavior, and we expect that these unspoken rules will be internalized and mobilized at the right times and in the correct circumstances. Unfortunately, verbal transmission of information is a relatively new development historically speaking, and without an ability to visualize and interpret the verbal language into pictures, the message is lost. Expectations without guidance for navigation, socially fail. There are alternate options to verbal directions and verbal communications. For the struggling population, silent language and communication allow opportunities for greater understanding and connection.

The Communication Diet and CARE Program on the surface may appear non-intuitive. They don’t fit our “historic” idea of what parenting, teaching, apprenticeship or mentorship approaches outline. When we reflect on how humans process information, and how the struggler struggles, we must re-consider how we utilize our communication tools. We have a very powerful mechanism that has been honed over millions of years among social primates. It is a far older and more deeply connected mechanism than our verbal language alone and is based on apprenticeship. These mechanisms shape and guild our behavior and connections through apprenticeship in a constantly changing social landscape. The first level of awareness and understanding being the recognition of dominance. Then, how you proceed to establish and build attachments based on trust using knowledge and discernment. The capacity to sort usable, complex content and context is widely practiced among social primates. These complex contexts are then utilized to regulate how one behaves in a social hierarchy. If every concept and understanding of how the social system works isn’t “spelled” out, then how did we evolve to have integrated social systems with hierarchy? How are our “strugglers” missing the critical cues? They are not internalizing them and can never regulate themselves for belonging and comfort. Agitation, misinformation, misunderstanding, is what they are stuck with, none of which is productive nor makes sense. Participation at any level that is intrinsically satisfying or comfortable is elusive. These strugglers become avoided, isolated, and shunned by others. It is not surprising that individuals who find themselves without understanding or belonging would become angry, volatile, and explosive. This is not by choice.

We can utilize our understanding of Executive Function to unlock this “struggler code” or puzzle and begin to make connections. Using our understanding of the breakdowns, we can observe, create, and establish baselines of competence and breakdown. What is it that the struggler doesn’t recognize or comprehend? Why and how does this “disconnect” develop and shape behavior?

Behavior that is based on “ah-ha” moments of understanding and participation allows adaptation to any situation. We can use our understanding from the elements of executive function beginning with invitation and interaction. This shapes competent collaboration relying on the new baseline of the struggler’s threshold of understanding, not our own perspective. Simply meeting the struggler where they are, not where we would like or expect them to be. We are creating those foundation baselines of understanding for the beginnings of mentorship. Our goal is participation that allows adaptation to any situation or environment. Practicing simple, well recognized, executive participation that bypasses well-worn paths of resistance, misbehaving, and frustration. Establishing yourself as a mentor, connects your executive function with the struggler, not the reverse. If the struggler could connect and “meet you” where you are, there would be no need to “rethink” engagement. The trap of “expectation” is to be expected and repeated over and over. The learning challenge for all of us in relation to strugglers is that they cannot perform that which they do not recognize nor understand. It is NOT bad behavior; quite the reverse: it is the fear of what is not understood.

Being the mentor connects us with the struggler. Creating coherent narratives that will become adaptive, we start at the beginning. Simply, creating non-verbal narratives that are mutually understood, and welcome connections. Activation of this simple, ancient human practice of nonverbal or symbolic expression allows connection and participation. We have begun!

Development of Awareness of Self and Others

Now we can anticipate that the process of the struggler becoming self-aware is not just becoming self-reflective. Awareness of self and others is obviously complex. It is dynamically molded as the brain develops and becomes able to process more complex information about self and others. A “sense of self” is the ability to know and understand participation as far as the parameters of primary roles such as: son/daughter, niece/nephew, spouse, coworker, peer, friend or acquaintance. This give us insight into the endless number of contexts and roles we practice, adapt, and participate every moment without being consciously aware. We are better at some roles than others. When we reflect on our own past, we understand that even though we consider ourselves a more competent individual, we have not always had successful outcomes in all of our roles. This is how we learned to be who we are today.

We can readily recognize problematic behavior reflects an inability to process complex information. This can look like a failure to adapt to changing environments or misunderstandings of context that change the “meaning of an action”.

Generally, adult or “grown up” humanity is notorious for misbehaving. Frequently, in sneaky ways. Being sneaky is not always regarded as inappropriate. Sneaky misbehaving shows dynamic thought as to what is “marginal” behavior, or what you can “get away with”. For example, everyone recognizes and practices “pushing in line”. This is acceptable, as the subjects are dynamic and can utilize past experiences, and rules and know how to “mold them” to their advantage. Who hasn’t maneuvered themselves to a better spot in a line for a concert, movie theater, etc.? The difference is knowing how much you can “get away” with.

The struggler has to be a rule follower. They have no thought process that evaluates or knows what the parameters are for cheating, lying, stealing, or any other process that isn’t rule-based. There is no “exact” answer which is terribly confusing. For example, in a conflict, the struggler may push, then shove, then punch, with no clear line delineation of right versus wrong, no comprehension of negotiation or collaboration, and little understanding of how/when/where to stop, resulting in punishment for fighting or injuring someone else.

This type of mischievous behavior is considered “consciously subverting the system”. We all recognize this aptitude as a healthy development of dynamic thought and behavior. Dynamic behavior doesn’t allow the “rules” to dominate their behavior, but rather, considers guidelines for recommended behavior on a “slide rule” dependent on consequences. Is it worth it? If the consequences are “dirty look” or “hey buddy, that’s not cool”…or a similar comment, the dynamic evaluation is individual and dependent on social “blow back”. The perspective is personal and based on an individual interpretation of social behavior. Some individuals might consider the commenting not worth the risk or being brazen, while others are not bothered by the response.

There is daily failure to adapt to changing environments, context that changes the meaning of action, any kind of coordination with others to figure out “what’s going on, etc. etc. etc. Considering the moment to moment flashes of failure and discomfort a struggler is bombarded with, their overall executive function failure in context, content, or a “sense of others” is great cause for frustration, anxiety, anger and more. Too much information, too complex in content, and without any “knowing” of what “others” are thinking, meaning, saying, makes it impossible to “match” other’s responses to collaborate or coordinate in any functional or meaningful way.

Self-Monitoring and Regulation

Self-monitoring and regulation are a subset of processes that self-awareness and awareness of others depend upon. Behavioral or participation challenges, regardless of origination or condition, demonstrate that the struggler is having difficulty finding a coherent way to understand and take part in what is happening around them. This includes understanding how they can engage in a way that their effort is recognizable to others.

Self-monitoring is the consistent updating of “incoming” information and internalizing this with the context and former experiences. Our ability to monitor self and others, and maintain active adjustment in a dynamic way without outburst or shut down, is self-regulation Our brains perform a “quick shift” into known coherent narratives as we adjust moment to moment to our environment. This involves observation, evaluation, inferencing, problem solving, and acting, all while understanding sequencing, probabilities of what happens next, and taking into consideration what just happened. Within these changes, we have to adjust socially to the current and expected social norms within a constantly changing, interactive landscape.

There is a part of our brain that detects errors and alerts us when something has gone awry. This fight/flight response lets us know something is wrong, however, the struggler often isn’t sure exactly what happened. The result may look like defiance, challenge of authority, denial, refusal, lying, outburst, abandonment, etc. As we know from our own experiences, challenge increases with the complexity of the situation.

The struggler with poor self-awareness or difficulty in self-monitoring, may be, for others, unmanageable. The level of conflict, general upset, or social emotional chaos, makes most people uncomfortable, wanting to leave the situation. Family outings, holidays, office work parties, etc. are perfect examples of when we can anticipate drama, conflict, or challenge. The need for self -awareness and social understanding is absolutely necessary to survive these experiences without having a meltdown.

Episodic Memory

The “job” of episodic memory is to allow your past experiences to influence your current and future everyday experiences. We know that if a situation was incoherent and a failure the first time it happened, it is likely that the rerun of that experience will be just as incoherent. That is, unless we reflect on what happened, mentally note how to adapt, and remember to create a different experience the next time.

It’s enough to make anyone anxious, right? Without episodic memory, executive function, self-monitoring and self-regulation, how can the struggler possibly consider that a horrible experience could be any different? For example:

  • If I can’t find my car keys, then what are the three most likely places I might look? What will I do if I can’t find them?
  • If my favorite burger place is closed, then what’s my second favorite? How close is it? What’s the likelihood it might still be open?

These are all foundational understanding and applications that allow us to remember yesterday, plan today, and between yesterday and today, figure out a better tomorrow. Without this ability and knowledge, we are constantly re-living our previous failures. How unsettling, to wake up and have accrued no new information or understanding that will help make sense out of the day. Your past is then not serving your present nor your future.

The challenge is always “how” are these memories embedded? Where do we begin? The understanding and use of simple experiences with practical application is the beginning.

Executive Function When it Counts: Understanding Social Context

When we organize social experiences by creating coherent narratives and sequencing events, what is expected? What is our response in who we are in relation to others? What kind of errors can be expected? What “range of error” is acceptable and what falls “outside” that range of expectation and acceptability? If we are outside that range of expectation, can we expect social isolation?

The anticipation of error and rebound is the key to success in connections and relationships with others. However, it is based on the ability to reflect and grasp what happened in its entirety, pinpoint what went wrong, what the consequences were, and the remedy. What many people say is ‘intentional misbehavior’ is clearly a lack of processing/executive function in the people we are discussing.

For the struggler, social situations are commonly organized based on previous experiences and interpretation of those experiences. Written rules for these social experiences don’t exist, as the dynamic nature of them means they are continuously re-created for each new social interaction. For the struggler, even the anticipation of the interaction may escalate anxiety, misunderstanding, and social behavior that results in isolation or no “second chance.”

Recurring inexplicable bad outcomes without the ability to process highly complex information reduces and removes opportunities for success. Repeating the negative experience, reinforces the negative memories, increases anxiety, and is quickly generalized to all experiences. The result is increased resistance to put oneself in a position to try again. Eventually, with repetition, avoidance and anxiety increase, resulting in an experience to “be avoided at all cost”.

Executive function plays a key role for strugglers. The creation of coherent narratives of self and others to navigate daily experiences is exceptionally intricate. The complex world is an overwhelming and punishing experience without choreography that includes observations, modifications, and understanding of “how the world works”.

How do we become successful navigators? Assisting the strugglers for maximum opportunities to practice simple navigation for mastery.

Being aware of ourselves and others, helps us recognize and understand the continued struggle that some individuals face. The inner world of the struggler reveals how complicated and challenging their experiences must be, contrasted with our own very different, dynamic experience. This knowledge may assist us in understanding and managing our own inner frustration with the struggler. We may be able to deal with those embarrassing moments that happen, reliably at the worst possible time, and bolster ourselves through other times when we feel sorry for ourselves or angry.

No one likes to be yelled at. When we are reactive, it never improves the situation for the struggling individual. When the struggler fails, we have to muster all that we have to demonstrate compassion. We can all relate to an experience when we’ve been in over our heads, feeling incompetent, and wanting to escape the situation, it’s just that the struggler is perpetually in this situation.

Within the family, there is a shared responsibility. Does it feel like the strugglers are your problems to sort out or can you share that responsibility with other family members?

Harnessing our own executive capacity can help us create a coherent narrative of what’s not working for the struggler. This is as important as what is working! How does the struggler perceive their difficulties and failures? In situations that are perceived poorly, can you to “partner up” with the struggler to see the experience as the struggler perceives them? With this partnership, you can position yourself to provide clues, reassurance, and proceed with new information for adjusted baselines of competence and participation. By reducing chaos, new communication strategies can activate improved understanding. With practice, we can minimize situations previously perceived to be difficult. These are great opportunities for mutual success at very simple daily life.

Providing Cues

Before you start, be certain you have the time and energy for the interaction without needing to rush. Having a cool head and relaxed affect is vitally important work with the struggler without provoking anxiety. Realize that when we are one edge, we tend to look menacing, threatening, impatient, and angry. No one wants to connect with someone who is clearly not relaxed, happy, or interested in having fun.

First, we have to get the attention of the struggler. Shared attention is not the same as “look at me”, “pay attention”, or any other command. It would seem that commands are direct and get results, however, they don’t provide the opportunity for a struggler to engage on their own and of their choosing. As simple as it sounds, when we are being “commanded” to do anything, we are instantly resistant or reactive, we cease to think for ourselves, and either follow along or revolt.

Instead, we want to create something that is fun, interesting, or different otherwise, so it can be repeated.

A place of mutual understanding and trust, is a place of connection, trust, and reprieve with dramatic results. Practiced over time, this one thing can change the coherency of the story. You will recognize a change in the wholeness of the dynamic over time, and see amazing new connections and possibilities. Coming from a place of frustration and disconnection, this quiet process can reboot the baseline of common understanding and perspective. This one simple element at a time. Just this one thing practiced over time, can create distance between that which is unimaginable and the connection of understanding. As with any animal that is invited with trust and expectation, relationship not behavior, is the goal. There is no objective that is successful with demand and obedience. Immediately, the dynamic is out of balance. Mutual respect and a baseline of mutual understanding and trust, is a true beginning. It’s a soft, quiet, non-threatening invitation to “tickle” the awareness of the struggler. It’s not giving verbal demands. It’s not raising your voice. The failure of our own regulation can result inadvertently in failure, despite our best efforts. If you haven’t found your baseline of common understanding; anticipate failure. The success isn’t in the demand, but what we can discover and do together. It’s not trying to sound “nice”. Understanding and practicing your own regulation first, with authentic calm is a necessary step. You can’t fake it. Everyone knows and recognizes stress, frustration, anxiety, and anger. No one can listen, be calm, or respond when anxiety is palpable and continually adds to the anxiety of the struggler. You don’t want conflicting messages in expectation. The expectation of a shared moment, is a moment of trust and connection. Barriers are down and open! A connection of trust passed on through the silent connection of gestures and intent.

Everything you want the struggler to understand, starts with this approach. The process then evolves as you create non-threatening ways to surprise and maintain that attention. Bring to light, cues about what is going on and how they can participate while you have their attention. Using this window of opportunity, bring attention to what is happening in the moment. Resist the urge to engage in a process of questioning or explaining the “concept” of what you’re observing. Rather, stay with just a moment of connection. Resist the urge to make the moment “bigger”. Old habits and fears of “not getting it” for the struggler and “not getting thru” for the connector, activates that reactive part of the brain that leads to shut down.

When we are actively practicing to scaffold our executive function, we immediately recognize how challenging it is to engage when situations are no longer intuitive or coherent. We are mentors, and we know that there are significant demands on the mentor, to work with the struggler in a collaborative way. We cannot mentor by reading a manual, by applying a “formula”, or by completing repetitive, scripted task behaviors. A formula has consistency, repeated over time. Social communicative behavior is a very dynamic, constantly changing societal expectation. With guidance and mentorship, we are anticipating unique and novel perspectives on how to participate and enjoy life, and finding ways to adapt those experiences so that individuals who struggle can process on their own, and manage without having to resort to reactive behaviors.

The Communication Diet best changes those old habits. Authentic connections and partnership, are the keys to a life that reflects an individual’s personal best. We can facilitate this by what we put into our communicative “recipes”. When we communicate in a way that is thought-provoking, multi-dimensional, invitational, and without performance expectations, we reduce the overwhelming amount of stimulation surrounding us, and increase the communicative value of what is processed. Like numbers going down on the scale, success with the Communication Diet will be evident in the responses and positive changes we see in people around us. What put out for our strugglers to consume, adapt to, and collaborate with, helps to build a healthier social life where these individuals can reach their personal best.