Executive Functions

An overly simplistic description of Executive Functions (EFs) is that they are a set of cognitive processes responsible for cueing, directing, and coordinating one’s own perception, emotion, cognition, and action. Effective coordination and control of EFs allows one to take in and process information, plan actions and execute on those plans. Conversely, ineffective mastery of EFs result in behaviors that lead to difficulties in school and work environments.

Among the work of psychologists and brain sciences experts in EF, we especially like the work of George McCloskey, a leading researcher, practitioner and lecturer in the field of EF, who developed with his colleagues the “Holarchical Model of Executive Functions” (HMEF) to explain the five different levels of executive control:

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  • Self-Activation. Self-activation has to do with how executive functions wake up from sleep. It’s difficult to engage and function if the brain is still in a sleep state and not yet activated.
  • Self-Regulation. Self-regulation comprise 33 executive functions (certainly a large number) that are involved in all that we perceive, feel, think and do nearly every waking moment of the day.
  • Self-Realization and Self-Determination. The development of self-realization is the critical starting point to develop any meaningful sense of others. Persons diagnosed with Autism and Asperger’s are typically very deficient in the executive capacities related to the development of self-awareness, and consequently very deficient in the development of awareness of others. Self-determination involves those EFs that enable goal-setting and long-term planning.
  • Self-Generation is the next tier of EFs involved in the inquiries into the nature of existence; the purpose of life; concept such as mind and soul; relationship between mind and body; and consideration of the possibility of the existence of God.
  • Trans-Self Integration. Some individuals with advanced “frontal lobe activation” can engage EFs that see past the self and consider the “ultimate truth” of human existence.

Our priority focus is Self-Regulation, within which the HMEF specifies 33 separate EFs that can be grouped into 7 clusters. To illustrate these EFs in a manner that parents and educators can relate to, the following discussion highlights problem behaviors likely to be exhibited in school settings by a student experiencing difficulties with self-regulation executive capacities.

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Attention Cluster

  • Perceive/Cue. Does not see signs, directions, etc.; does not hear directions; does not touch or handle materials; seems unaware of own thoughts and actions
  • Focus/Select. Does not attend to information being presented
  • Sustain. Has difficulty working on tasks for extended periods of time

Engagement Cluster

  • Energize. Puts little energy or effort into work on school tasks
  • Initiate. Slow to get started with tasks; long pauses occur before a response is offered
  • Inhibit. Blurts out comments in class; acts impulsively; can’t wait for turn
  • Stop. Continues even after being told to stop
  • Interrupt/Pause. Does not return to work on a task after a brief interruption
  • Flexible. Resists the idea of doing things a different way or feeling or thinking a different way; insists on doing things the same way
  • Shift. Has difficulty going from one activity to another or moving from one thought or feeling to another

Optimization Cluster

  • Monitor. Doesn’t check work for errors; has difficulty realizing when he/she has made a mistake; has a hard time identifying inaccurate thoughts or feelings
  • Modulate. Has difficulty adjusting activity level; is overactive or underactive; gets overstimulated or under stimulated; overreacts or underreacts to situations
  • Balance. Has difficulty finding the balance between extremes (speed vs. accuracy, quality vs. quantity; general vs. specific statements; depth vs. breadth; talking vs. listening, sharing too much vs. sharing too little; being humorous vs. being serious)
  • Correct. Has trouble correcting mistakes or apologizing for inappropriate behavior

Efficiency Cluster

  • Sense Time. Seems unaware of the passage of time; does not know how long he/she was working on a task or thinking about something
  • Pace. Has difficulty changing pace to go slower or go faster as conditions dictate
  • Sequence. Has difficulty getting the steps of a routine in the right order; performs sequenced tasks out of order
  • Execute. Has trouble effectively using routines that most children the same age have automated; lacks follow-through on tasks even when interested and attending

Memory Cluster

  • Hold. Has difficulty holding onto information for more than a few seconds
  • Manipulate. Has difficulty actively working with information that is being held in mind
  • Store. Has difficulty with storing information so it will be available for later use
  • Retrieve. Has difficulty retrieving stored information when needed

Inquiry Cluster

  • Gauge. Has difficulty “sizing up” what is needed to complete a task; under or over estimates the difficulty of tasks
  • Anticipate. Has difficulty looking ahead or anticipating what will be next; has difficulty considering the consequences of his or her actions before acting
  • Estimate Time. Is very poor at estimating the time or estimating how long it takes to do things
  • Analyze. Has difficulty with examining things in more detail to understand them better
  • Compare/Evaluate. Has difficulty evaluating the quality of his or her work or thinking; difficulty comparing one thing with another on various dimensions

Solution Cluster

  • Generate. Has difficulty coming up with a new idea or finding a novel solution to a problem
  • Associate. Has difficulty understanding or seeing how two or more things or ideas are similar
  • Organize. Has difficulty with arranging things or thoughts in an orderly manner
  • Plan. Has difficulty working out in advance a way of doing things or thinking about things
  • Decide. Has difficulty choosing among options; can’t choose how to think, feel or act
  • Prioritize. Has difficulty assigning an order of importance to things or activities

Above information reprinted with permission from an upcoming book from George McCloskey.

Understanding where a child stands on these EFs provides a starting point for where a child faces barriers and where additional help and support could be beneficial. Identifor aims to contribute to a better understanding of a child’s EF starting point, and over time help the child develop the deficient skills.

Of course we cannot hope to assess all these Self-Regulation EFs through our games – not even when we’re much further along. We will, however, endeavor to use as much data from the various games to provide a glimpse into as many of these EFs as possible. Furthermore, we will enable the systematic use of the McCloskey Executive Function Survey (MEFS) to collect information about a child from parents, those people parents invite to provide feedback (e.g., educators, therapists, etc.) and even the child himself/herself if appropriate and possible. This 360° assessment of a child may provide valuable insights into areas of commonalities as well as areas of possible disconnects.

At the heart of Identifor’s technology is GetAbby, an artificial intelligence platform that uses natural speech processing and a human avatar to enable players to have one-on-one conversations with Abby. Over time and as resources become available, we will train Abby to help players develop EF skills as all the research shows that EF skills are trainable. Since not everyone can work with Dr. McCloskey on a regular basis to build these EF skills, Abby hopes to provide a partial solution as Dr. McCloskey will train her to ask the questions he would ask, have the type of conversations he would have, etc. The aspiration is to make EF skill development much more accessible to any child who has a need.

For more information about Executive Function, explore: