Executive function and self-regulation

In simple terms executive function means, the ability for the brain to take steps to complete a complex task or goal, regulating thoughts, emotions, and actions to support the accomplishment of it.

The set of skills that underlie in strengthening executive function of the brain are the capacity to plan ahead to meet goals, display self-control, remain focused despite distractions or struggles and continue to follow the steps leading to attainment of the goal.

It is our prefrontal cortex located just behind the forehead that controls the executive function. This part of the brain is 1/3 of the brain.

Th prefrontal cortex of the brain that controls executive function

We are not born with executive functioning abilities but learn them as we grow. The other good part is that we can continue to work and develop our executive functioning way into our twenties through experience and practice.

Executive function and self-regulated skills as explained by Harvard Developing Child depend on three types of brain function: Working memory, Mental flexibility and Self Control. Let us try and break these three functions down to understand how a simple activity of setting goals can be so important for us to build all of these three brain functions and strengthen our executive function and self-regulation skill. You can also read more about it here by Seth Perler.

Goal: Identify a goal. Keep it realistic. A goal that is 80% achievable with some effort and 20% for which one needs to strive for, is a reasonable goal. For example, setting a goal for improving test scores by 5% in the next semester is a realistic goal in comparison to improving score by 25%.

Plan: Once the goal has been identified, list the necessary steps that need to be taken to accomplish the goal. While planning, take stock of the possible obstacles or barriers that may exist.

Time management: Allocate time to each step and also to the completion of the goal. This will allow you to think more deeply about the complexity of each step.

Organize: Set systems that support the completion of the goal. For example, do you have all the resources required to complete your task? Have you planned your day in a manner that supports your time allocated to completing the task etc?

Prioritize: The ability to pause and think, evaluate competing tasks between

important and urgent,

important but not urgent,

not important and not urgent,

not important but urgent.

Inhibit: Think, reflect, hold back, pause, before you act. Keep in mind your long-term goals. Inhibit thoughts, emotions and behavior that will obstruct the achievement of goals. For example, I can not do this, it is too difficult. I did not achieve good grades in the last test, there is no point trying as I don’t think I am good at this anyway. I still have a week to submit this work and I work better under pressure so let me use the last three days for completing this task.

Focus: Resisting temptations or feeling of anxiety by redirecting thoughts to the task on hand. Finding ways of limiting distractions and keeping the focus on the goal.

Milestones: Identifying the important details of the task that can be considered as milestones that must be achieved in the process to achieve the final goal.  Ask yourself questions about, how am I progressing? Am I happy with the progress I am making? Am I meeting timelines? Do I need to make a course correction? 

Task initiation: Setting on the actual journey and not waiting for a reminder from parents or teachers.

Task persistence:  Continue to persist on the tasks set to attain goal. Understand that, Things Take Time and therefore do not hope to indulge in instant gratification. Understand that sometimes the results that you want to achieve may be delayed but do not lose hope and continue to maintain focus and work towards your goal.

Working memory: To be able to move or transition between different set of information, form links or see patterns between different information. Set a mechanism to review your work through self check.

Reflect: Reflecting on the task, being self-aware, mindful of the task being done, accepting mistakes and failures and finding ways to rectify them, asking for support if needed, developing the required skills that may be needed to continue, re-looking and auditing the available resources and augmenting them if needed.

Emotional regulation:  The six basic emotions are:  Happy, Sad, Surprise, Disgust, Anger and Fear. Naming and understanding the emotions that you feel when working towards the goal is the first step towards becoming a self-regulated learner.  Managing challenging emotions, always engaging in positive self-talk, speaking to at least one adult about what you are feeling and seeking help and support during this time, so that you can continue to advance despite adversity is the best gift you can give yourself. At the same time also remember not to get swayed by emotions of happiness when things go well.

Learning is a journey and not an event. So go back to your goals and evaluate what you have achieved, what needs modification, who will you discuss your progress with and what mechanism of review will you now put in place so that you remain motivated to accomplish what you started. Try the WOOP strategy to plan your short term goals and do remember to set deadlines!

I hope you find this a smart way to stay resilient.






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