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Saturday, May 22, 2010

Executive Function and Planning

"Planning... is about intending to do something that will achieve a goal."
(Oates & Grayson, 2004 p214)

The second key element of executive functioning is the ability to plan before you act. This function helps us identify what we want to do and predict what might be the consequences of our actions (Queensland Health, 2007).

When it works well...

Imagine you are at a social gathering and you have just been introduced to someone new. What you notice first is what they look like. But you choose not to say anything about their purple and orange striped hair, or lush purple pants worn with a startlingly red sequenced top that is perhaps several sizes too small for their curvaceous figure.

Instead, you say something like, "So how do you know Kim?" (which is the mutual friend who just introduced you).

This is because you have a plan: To get to know someone new and avoid offending them or your mutual friend.

And you have thought about what fits with that plan: This is based on what you predict will be the consequences of various things you could have said based on your knowledge of social rules and theory of mind.

Theory of mind

Theory of mind is broadly defined as the ability to predict or think about what others may be feeling. Robson (2006) adds that it is about:
"understanding that other people's thoughts, beliefs, feelings and desires may differ from our own, and that our own can change over time." (p70)
This is what helps us empathise, behave with respect, as well as avoiding being tactless and behaving in ways that hurt or offend others. It has also been called social imagination - see this previous post for further discussion.

When you forget to plan...

Think back to the previously described scenario where you have been introduced to a colourful new person. If your executive function of planning is not working efficiently, instead of acting according to a goal you might simply say whatever comes into your head.

For example, "My goodness, your hair is bright!"

"Your top is a bit small, isn't it?"

"Why are you wearing purple pants?"

"So you're the entertainment for the party?"

All of which are likely to produce reactions such as embarrassment or anger or other responses not helpful to the development of new friendships.

Statements like this might be cute (though still embarrassing) coming from very young children - basically because they have not yet had enough experience to develop awareness of the consequences for such statements. But as adults it is expected that you would have a bit more tact and respect for individual differences.

Alternatively, you might get away with saying things like this to a close friend, someone you know well and who knows the intent behind your words is not nasty or destructive. But, if you had really thought about the consequences of your words, these should not be the first words you say to someone you have just met.

How it effects learning...

Without planning we will struggle with:
  • Bringing all our equipment to class
  • Getting assignments done on time
  • Completing our work in a logical, step-by-step way in the time allotted in class

What can we do?

Next time I will write about what we can do to help children with executive functioning issues plan before they act.


Oates, J. & Grayson, A. (2004). Cognitive and Language Development in Children. Blackwell Publishing: Oxford.

Queensland Health. (2007). Executive Function and Capacity. Retrieved 8th May, 2010 from

Robson, S. (2006). Developing Thinking and Understanding in Young children: An Introduction for Students. Routledge: London.



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