What Are Executive Functions? The Importance of Working Memory

What Are Executive Functions? The Importance of Working Memory

Executive functions (EFs)  are brain-based cognitive skills that help with decision-making and self-control. EFs help with figuring out what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. They involve many parts of the brain, most notably the prefrontal cortex and connected neural networks. EFs are a “description,” not an actual place in the brain, and are better considered as a part of the management system of the brain. There are also hundreds of other definitions of executive functions. Ask cognitive psychologists what executive functions are, and each is likely to highlight one particular area of them. Some emphasize inhibition, others organization or activation. However, there seems to be a consensus about the importance of the executive function of working memory.

Verbal working memory involves the ability to remember something and perform an activity using this memory. This helps with maintaining information in mind to use for learning, reasoning, or producing a result. For example, this might involve shutting off a computer while remembering to gather your coat, keys, and backpack before leaving the house on a trip. In school, verbal working memory is very important in taking notes, reading, following multistep directions, and doing mathematical calculations in your head. Working memory involves storing information temporarily, the ability to access those memories,  and using that information in problem solving, motor activities, and self-control.

Verbal working memory plays an important role in reading comprehension and, to a lesser degree for younger children, the development of decoding skills that contribute to reading fluency. It is a measure of the capacity to hold information in mind with the goal of completing a task. Working memory helps with remembering the rules within a game or task. Both kids and adults often use rehearsal strategies such as repeating things in order to support their memory-strategy skills.

The effective use of verbal working-memory skills is observed when children can remember and follow complicated directions. This also helps when they use previous experiences of learning in a new situation and keep their engagement on tasks, even while shifting activities within these tasks. Working memory also allows people to reorganize their thoughts or materials in a way that is helpful for further learning and to control their attention to tasks. 

Children who struggle with verbal working memory tend to remember only the first or last things in a series of directions. Deficits in working memory often lead to difficulty with jobs that have more than one step, forgetfulness in the middle of doing things, and trouble remembering things such as directions and phone numbers for even a few minutes. Individuals who struggle with working memory describe themselves as being absent-minded and may be confused with multi-step mathematical problems. 

One of the best things about working memory struggles is that kids and adults can do something to improve their capacities and real-world behaviors that rely on working memory. Most important is the simple recognition of these problems. Once people learn to be aware of situations where working memory skills are needed they can get help, which can come in the form of asking family, friends, teachers, and coworkers to prompt and remind them. This can be achieved by developing low tech habits as tools for memory such as writing things on a small note pad, strategically placing yellow “stickies, using a large paper calendar, learning to do one thing at a time, or writing a “to-do” list on something you cannot lose, such as the back of your hand, if necessary.

While high tech tools can be an incredible asset for people with poor working-memory skills, they require two core skills: the ability to learn how to use the calendars, note-taking, dictation tools, and apps that can enhance memory and the capacity to remember how and when to use them. Training in the use of these technologies and making their use into habits is often the key to their successful use in supporting weak working-memory skills. Kids and teens can get training in programs such as LearnngWorks LIVE. While adults often need to do the work on their own, they can generally find tutorials on how to use these apps on YouTube or by visiting company websites. The advantage to using high tech is that it is often available on something else that you almost can’t lose – your cell phone. Some excellent suggestions for working memory apps can be found in our LW4K  search engine.

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