Executive functioning is described by Horowitz (2007) as “a term used to describe the many different cognitive processes that individuals use to control their behavior and to get ready to respond to different situations.” LD.org, National Learning Center for Learning Disabilities has some great background on executive functioning. Shonkoff, et al (2011) conceptualize this as “building the brain’s air traffic control system“. The authors consider three dimensions for executive function: working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive or mental flexibility (p. 2).
Here are some widely available assistive technology ideas for improving executive function in working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive or mental flexibility.
Working Memory: “to hold and manipulate information over short periods (Shonkoff, et al, 2007).”
1. Smartphone reminders. Smartphones have the capacity to quickly schedule short-term reminders and to-do lists.
2. Keeping “stuff” straight. A personal valet storage system like the one pictured here can aid executive functioning by establishing a location to store car keys, devices, wallets, and jewelry. The only way this works is if the person commits to the discipline of only placing his or her “stuff” here, with the knowledge that later on, it will be found here again. The use of a valet can provide scaffolding for the intended behavior of simply always placing one’s accessories in one place. Many valets have multiple device chargers built in, which integrates remembering to charge these devices with putting them down.
3. Key-ring finder. A key-ring finder can be affixed to items like remote controls, keys, and anything else for quick location by audible noise which initiates when the button is pressed. One must be sure he/she does not lose the button!
4. Picture prompts. Not all assistive technology is electronic! A simple picture illustrating a process can be established to remind a person about a sequence of tasks, or procedure.
5. Medication Reminders. These can come in the form of a low-tech pill organizer that separates meds by the day, to more sophisticated reminding systems that are electronic and programmable.
6. Appliance Safety prompts. Many home appliances are offered with safety features including automatic shut-off for stoves and audible prompts to let a person know when he or she has left the refrigerator door open.
Inhibitory Control: “to master and filter our thoughts and impulses (Shonkoff, et al, 2007).”
7. The rubber band. A longtime trusted ally for therapeutic anger management and impulse control, the rubber band can be worn on one’s wrist with instructions to gently “snap” it against the skin when a person feels the undesired impulse, as a cue to consider the action and its potential outcome.
8. Biofeedback. Devices like a pedometer can measure good behaviors like walking while serving as a reminder and encouragement to continue the healthy behavior.
Cognitive or Mental Flexibility: “the capacity to nimbly switch gears and adjust to changed demands, priorities, or perspectives (Shonkoff, et al, 2007).”
9. Kitchen Timer. Technically, a kitchen timer is not all that is needed to aid a person to nimbly switch gears, but a simple to-do list and the cognitive scaffolding to use these in conjunction are what make up the Pomodoro Technique of time and task management. The basics of the system are as follows: First, a to-do list of diverse activities can be created as a checklist. The kitchen timer is set for 25 minutes, and the user begins work on the first task on the list. The task is either complete or not, at the end of 25 minutes. Regardless, a 5 minute break is taken. The user then begins another 25 minute segment to either complete the previous task, or begin the next task. After several 25 minute segments and 5 minute breaks, an extended break is scheduled. The technique is named for the classic kitchen timer it uses, which is shaped like a pomodoro tomato. Created by Francesco Cirillo, the pomodoro technique can be learned using a free e-book in order to master this technique as an effective means of time and task management.
10. Environmental techniques. Careful focus on work space can assure that a person stays on task. This includes adequate lighting, careful placement of items and removal of clutter and potential distractions.
These ten items are simply a sampling of what is available to aid executive functioning. A wide array of options are available to the creative interventionist or consumer for improving quality of life with regard to remembering, decision-making, and dealing with multiple areas of focus from hour to hour and day to day. While limits to executive functioning do occur, every problem has a solution.
Referenced in this post:
Horowitz, S. H. (2007). Executive Functioning and Learning Disabilities. Retrieved from: http://www.ncld.org/ld-basics/ld-aamp-executive-functioning/basic-ef-facts/executive-functioning-and-learning-disabilities
National Center for Learning Disabilities, inc. (2012). Executive Functioning. Retrieved from: http://www.ncld.org/ld-basics/ld-aamp-executive-functioning
Shonkoff, J. P., et al., (2011). Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System: How early experiences shape the development of executive function. National Forum on Early Childhood Policy and Programs, Harvard University. Retrieved from: http://developingchild.harvard.edu/index.php/resources/reports_and_working_papers/working_papers/wp11/