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  • Cynthia Yoo

Self-Regulation & Executive Functioning - Definition, Meaning, and Skills

Children who can self-regulate (calm when upset) are more able to learn and implement executive functioning skills (planning and decision making). Together, regulation and executive skills are necessary for everyday functioning - including when we play, socialize, learn, do chores, and work. They are also critical for resilience (the capacity to quickly adapt and recover from challenges).

Self regulation refers to a set of skills that enable us to manage and redirect our attention, thoughts, feelings, urges, and behavior. As children increase their capacity to self-regulate, we see them begin to gain self-awareness and control as they demonstrate the capacity to:

  • calm when they feel very upset or excited;

  • refrain from acting on impulse when doing so would be inappropriate;

  • do what is expected of them, even when they don’t want to;

  • pay attention;

  • avoid distraction;

  • re-engage their attention when distracted

  • stay focused on their goals;

  • wait to get what they want;

  • adapt to changes in their environment;

  • communicate, negotiate, and cooperate with others.

Executive functioning refers to a set of skills that enable us to set goals and manage ourselves in service of those goals. They include self-regulation, as we need to be able to tolerate distress and inhibit our impulses in order to engage higher order thinking processes. Executive functioning involves the following skills:

  • goal setting - deciding we want to pursue a desired outcome;

  • working memory - keeping pieces of information in mind to problem-solve and stay on task toward a goal;

  • behavior inhibition - refraining from doing what we want when it takes us further away from our goal;

  • self-awareness - knowing our thoughts, feelings, urges, and goals;

  • self-monitoring and self-regulation - knowing when we are getting off track of our goals and managing ourselves to get back on track;

  • time management - using time effectively to complete tasks toward a goal;

  • planning, organizing, and prioritizing - knowing when to complete smaller parts of a task toward a larger goal;

  • intrinsic motivation - keeping the reward in mind to stay on task toward a goal;

  • task initiation, persistence, re-engagement, and completion - knowing how to stay focused and on track to achieve our goals;

  • decision-making and problem-solving - using cognitive flexibility and abstract reasoning to effectively adapt to challenges as they arise;

  • self-advocacy - effectively communicating and negotiating our desires, interests, needs, and rights.

Regulation and executive skills are developmental, meaning that no one is born with them and they develop over time. Children who exhibit challenging behavior (e.g., very emotional, impulsive, inattentive, forgetful, or unmotivated) often do so because they have not yet developed the skills they need to manage themselves and do well. It is not because they are ‘bad’ or ‘out to give you a hard time’ - they are having a hard time and need your understanding, compassion, and support.

Most neurotypical children are able to instinctively learn and implement regulation and executive skills on their own as they mature. However, due to brain-based differences, children with neurodevelopmental disorders (e.g., ADHD and Learning Disabilities) tend to struggle with these skills and across their home, school, and social activities. These children require additional understanding, explicit intervention strategies, consistent feedback, and extra time to practice and learn these skills within the context of supportive relationships. Many parents find that when their child struggles with regualtion and executive skills, so do they. If you feel overwhelmed, frustrated, defeated, or unclear on how to support your child - counselling can help empower you with strategies to effectively parent your child and maximize their learning, capacity, and success.

- Written by Cynthia Yoo, Registered Psychologist -




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