What is cognition?
Cognition is an umbrella term used to describe the group of mental operations that help us process information. Your cognition is what allows you to understand and make sense of the world around you, and the world within. Simply put, cognition is thinking.
Language, knowledge, memory, judgement and sensory perceptions are all mechanisms within the cognitive machine - more commonly known as the brain! And we call the brain’s control room the "executive function" (EF).
What are executive functions?
Humans have control over some cognitive processes, while others are more automatic. EF’s are the mental operations you can actively command and influence. These include focusing your attention, planning, organising, categorising, remembering and keeping track of what you’re doing.
For example, you will use your EF to cook. First, you would plan out what ingredients you need, then organise these onto a shopping list, pay attention to what is written in the recipe book and temporarily remember the instructions, all while keeping track of your progress towards the goal of making food.
If you have trouble with any one of these functions, the “simple” task of cooking can become very challenging.
The part of the brain that deals with EF continues to develop well into our 20’s. This means young people’s level of self-control is naturally limited. Children and adolescents who are impulsive, forgetful, disorganised or have trouble concentrating are not necessarily doing this by choice. Instead, they are probably doing their best to navigate life despite their underdeveloped EF. These kids need specific strategies and adult support to operate effectively in daily life.
What are non-executive functions?
Non-executive functions are those you have little to no control over. For instance, you couldn’t wake up one morning and decide that you’re going to be much more intelligent that day. Equally, your memory capacity and language skills, as well as your sensory perceptions (hearing, seeing, feeling, etc) won’t suddenly improve just because you want them to.
This isn’t to say there aren’t things you can do to improve non-executive functions, just that you don’t really have control over these abilities in any given moment.
Your child may experience difficulties with executive functions, non-executive functions or both. It is the job of a specially trained psychologist to determine where these difficulties lie and how to best support your child.
How is cognition related to intelligence?
Intelligence (or IQ) is a measure of general cognitive ability. It describes how well an individual can apply their cognitive skills to solve problems and understand information. Valid IQ tests measure a range of cognitive abilities such as memory, knowledge, language, processing speed, problem-solving and visual-spatial skills. These tests help psychologists to identify strengths and weaknesses, detect diagnoses and guide effective support plans.
Cognitive and intellectual difficulties in children
Some children have a specific issue in one area of cognitive functioning, while others have wide-spread intellectual impairments. If your child is suffering with a cognitive problem, it is likely that he or she is struggling in multiple areas of life. Deficits in the way your child processes information can affect social relationships, education, behaviour and emotional health.
Children’s EF can develop at different rates. So, while your child may be behind their peers in certain areas, such as with planning and organising abilities, it is possible that he or she will catch up if given a little more time to develop these skills. On the other hand, your child's intelligence will remain relatively consistent throughout their lifespan.
As the parent of a child with cognitive difficulties, you may feel concerned, confused and frustrated. You are most likely determined to help your child in any way possible, and have many questions you want answered. Keep in mind that the human brain is exceptionally complex. There is no quick-fix, no magic bullet, no one-size-fits-all solution. Supporting your child will be a journey that requires knowledge, patience and professional guidance.
Thankfully there are lots of things you can do to improve your child’s quality of life. The way forward begins with a clear understanding of what is going on for your child, and the best way to achieve this is through psychological assessment.
Signs and symptoms of cognitive problems:
- Difficulty paying attention
- Poor memory and forgetfulness
- Seems slow to understand information
- Difficulty with speech or language
- Easily distracted
- Can’t seem to follow instructions
- Fails to see tasks through to the end
What causes cognitive and intellectual difficulties?
If your child is having cognitive difficulties, you probably want to know why. Unfortunately, most parents must come to accept that they will never be certain of the true cause(s).
Cognitive difficulties may arise wherever there is interference with the brain’s development and/or physical structure. Issues may relate to a child’s genetic make-up (e.g., Down syndrome), and/or environmental factors (e.g., problematic pregnancy or childbirth, illness, or head injury).
Additionally, severe emotional disorders such as depression, anxiety and PTSD can result in more temporary cognitive impairments.
Thankfully, identifying the cause of a child’s concerns is not typically relevant to effective treatment planning. Talk to a psychologist about your concerns today!
Assessment of cognitive difficulties
A clinical assessment of childhood cognitive problems typically requires a combination of parent and teacher interviews, questionnaires, child testing and observation. In order to accurately identify the cause of your child's cognitive concerns, your psychologist must first rule out alternative factors. This takes time and skill.
Having your child assessed is a crucial first-step towards creating a better life for you and your loved one. If you are struggling to support your child, get in touch today for professional advice.
Common disorders related to cognition
Learn more about these childhood disorders: