Executive Function/Thinking Skills: Instinct Or Intentional Action?

Updated: Apr 1

Spiders demonstrate untaught behavior when it's time to catch food. It has to spin a web. This untrained behavior is what we call instinct. According to Google's English dictionary by Oxford Languages - "Instinct is an innate, typically fixed pattern of behavior in animals in response to certain stimuli."

Watching the spider make a web reveals some interesting behavior when it performs and completes the task. Each part of the task mimics cognitive-type behaviors or executive function (EF) skills.

Beautiful Spider Web Build Time-lapse | BBC Earth

With the untrained behavior and built-in capacity, the spider takes action towards what it needs to do. Assessing the environment, picking a location, and how to go about building the web. The spider can make a web in a burrow, between two plants or objects, at a corner in your home, outside, or abandoned buildings. The spider is innately aware of its ability to produce silk. The spider works tirelessly in circles until it reaches the outer edge. The work seems monotonous and tedious, but with its urgent need to feed, time is of the essence until it finally completes the task.

The spider's actions are innate or inborn. Even though the spider's steps are inherent, it displays behavior that parallels EF skills. Human beings are highly complex and intelligent creatures, but we also have innate behaviors. Our innate behaviors help us survive. They include self-preservation, reproduction, and social connection. Nobody teaches us these behaviors, and we do not have to practice them. Survival behaviors are inborn. Conversely, executive function skills are not hereditary; we learn them. Since we are highly complex and intelligent beings, we can implement EF skills on purpose.

EF skills help us concentrate on learning, remember information that we have learned and use to solve problems, learn from the mistakes we make, control the urge to act on a whim, organize our belongings, and use time efficiently. EF skills begin to develop when we are born. These skills like motor and sensory processing develop with input from the environment. Throughout life, we develop these skills when we actively engage with our environment. The brain changes and makes new connections when facing novel or unfamiliar experiences. New experiences promote problem-solving skills and growth.

When we engage infants and children, we provide input that promotes neural connections. We engage infants (0 to 5 months) to promote motor learning, attention, and social interaction. Appropriate attachment to caregivers lays a good foundation for infants to develop other EF skills. Additional EF skills emerge after six months. Working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control are the foundational EF skills that are the framework of self-regulation. (We will look at self-regulation in another blog).

Children 6 months and older can engage in games and interaction that enhance self-awareness, self-regulation, initiation, organization, planning, goal-directed persistence, time-management, and self-monitoring.

Pre-teens and teens are moving towards independence in many areas of daily life: self-care, productivity (home, school, work, community), sleep/rest, leisure exploration, and health management.

They need to be able to tap into these skills as demands increase and might need support.

  • Self-regulation (the umbrella for self-control): being able to manage oneself to behave appropriately (this includes emotions)

- Attention: noticing or deliberate observation of ourselves, another person, or an event

- Self-control: stopping oneself from engaging impulsively

- Mental flexibility: adjusting thinking and behavior if change happens

- Working memory: recalling and using information functionally

  • Initiation: starting a task

  • Self-monitoring: keeping track of yourself and your work

  • Planning: looking ahead and having an intention to meet a goal

  • Organization: The ability to arrange objects and thoughts for easy access

  • Time management: using time efficiently to finish tasks

  • Goal-directed persistence - following through with a goal with effort and focus

EF skills are intentional actions. We can explicitly teach them throughout adolescence and into young adulthood. Studies show that EF skills do not mature until 25; however, we recognize that neuroplasticity occurs throughout our lives. Learning EF skills can be beneficial whether one has a diagnosis or not. Pre-teens, teens, and young adults are learning to use EF skills to tackle change - physical changes, zealous emotions, and a need for freedom and independence. Occupational Therapy can help improve EF skills.

What things do we see with difficulty with executive functioning skills? EF difficulties must be frequent and impact everyday function

  • Forgets how to complete tasks in sequence

  • Has a difficult time staying focused on tasks and jumps from one task to another

  • Does not check work or has trouble completing homework promptly

  • Unable to look ahead to prioritize or plan for important tasks or events

  • Unable to keep themselves from blurting out answers or is generally impulsive

  • Can be the class clown inappropriately

  • Has difficulty applying concepts or information to solve new problems

  • Needs reminders for routine things

  • Difficulty estimating how much time a task might take or using their time efficiently

  • Has a hard time following multi-step or straightforward directions

  • Loses or misplaces homework assignments or essential items

  • The room, locker, desk, or backpack is always messy to the point that they cannot find things easily

  • Tends to give up quickly at the first sign of failure, sometimes with significant upset

  • Has difficulty assessing their emotions, behaviors, and thoughts

  • Has difficulty adapting when changes happen

  • Has trouble starting projects or assignments

  • Does not ask for help when needed

  • Tends to have a problem reviewing their performance and making adjustments as needed

Don't Forget the Effect of the Emotional Brain on Students' Executive Functions.

EF delays are prevalent in many diagnoses and circumstances:

  • Neglected, abused, or children living in high-stress environments

  • Research also indicates that most children with ADD, ADHD and learning disorders exhibit EF delays

  • Children with Autism Spectrum disorders also fall under this umbrella

  • Children without a formal diagnosis can also struggle with EF skills

  • Day-to-day overwhelming stressors

  • Anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses can impact EF skills both in children with or without diagnoses

Unlike the spider, whose primary behavior suggests a simple need to survive with fixed actions and products, humans have a complex desire to thrive and be versatile. The spider uses innate abilities to produce threads and silk to design a web. In addition to natural behaviors, human beings have the capacity for intentional actions or EF skills. Executive function skills help us manage ourselves, learn, understand and reason, solve problems, make decisions, plan for the future, and voluntarily move or act. We can tap into and use our emotions positively. We can reflect, imagine, design, and innovate. Versatility for human beings brings the opportunity to survive and thrive.