What are Executive Functions?
Executive functions are cognitive (brain-based) processes an individual uses to concentrate, pay attention and get things done. They are sometimes referred to as executive control, cognitive control or executive skills. Executive functions typically start to develop in children around age 5 and continue to develop until age 25. Humans are born with the innate potential to develop executive functions but will only do so if the right environment is provided to shape their development.
Executive functions help individuals:
- process information
- manage their time
- create a plan
- remember important information and details
- adjust plans according to new information
- make a timeline for events
- pay attention to the task at hand
- stay on topic when needed
- multitask when it is appropriate.
Executive functions are core skills for individuals to develop because they allow individuals to achieve success in school, work and life. Executive functions are needed for an individual’s cognitive, social and psychological development as well as their mental and physical health.
As with any skill, an individual’s strengths and weakness present in a unique manner. That being said, here are some common examples of things an individual who has poor executive functions may show:
- talk out of turn
- are disorganized
- have trouble with big projects
- have a hard time staying on top of school work
- have difficultly staying organized
- struggle to start and/or finish a task
- have trouble locating their belongings
- have difficulty controlling their emotions
- struggle staying on task
- have problems completing work independently
- struggle with time management
- have problems controlling their behaviour
- find it challenging to create a plan and follow through with it
An excellent example of someone with poor executive control is a toddler or a preschooler. At this age, children live for the moment and don’t think about future consequences. If they are hungry, they want to eat now! It doesn’t matter that dinner is in half an hour and if they have a snack now, it will spoil their dinner. If another child has a toy they want, they simply go and take it. If they may hit, bit, scream or kick in order to get what they want.
*Remember, this is an age where executive functions have not begun to develop yet so these behaviours are perfectly normal and parents do not need to worry.
Any individual may struggle with one or more of the executive functions. Problems with executive functions are common for individuals who have a Specific Learning Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). Some researchers feel that ADHD Inattentive Presentation is actually an Executive Function Disorder. If you think you might have an Executive Function Disorder, then you may want to talk to your doctor.
The total number of executive functions varies depending on which expert you talk to. There is a general consensus that there are three core executive functions that other executive functions build on. The three core executive functions are working memory, cognitive flexibility and inhibitory control.
Core Executive Functions
Working memory is the ability to hold information in your mind and use it. Working memory is a crucial skill in everyday life because it allows us to understand what we have read, follow directions or relate one piece of information to another.
If you have problems with working memory, you can have a hard time remembering a set of directions or instructions.
Cognitive flexibility is sometimes referred to as metacognition. It is the ability to think about things and consider other perspectives. Cognitive flexibility allows for self-monitoring and self-evaluation. It allows you to think about what is happening and decide what the best course of action is. Cognitive flexibility will enable you to adjust to the unexpected.
If you are not cognitively flexible, you have a hard when things change unexpectedly. You also have a hard time considering other people’s opinions.
Inhibitory control is sometimes referred to as mindfulness or emotional regulation. Inhibitory control is needed if you want to change your behaviour. It helps you think before acting on your emotions and allows you to stop and think about something before you say it. Inhibitory control enables you to acknowledge that you have a feeling, but it allows you to control how you express those feelings. Without inhibitory control, you are at the mercy of your desires and emotions.
If you have poor inhibitory control, you likely regret doing things because you will often act on impulse before thinking through the consequences of your actions. You also may find that you often ‘put your foot in your mouth’ meaning saying something you really shouldn’t have.
Additional Executive Functions
Examples of other executive functions beyond working memory, cognitive flexibility and inhibitory control include sustained attention, task initiation, planning, organization, time management and goal-directed persistence.
Sustained attention is precisely what it sounds like, it is the ability for someone to pay attention to the task at hand even if they are tired, bored or would instead do something else. Sustained attention is required for so many parts of daily living, such as school, work, and completing chores.
When you have problems with sustained attention, you have a hard time focusing for an extended period of time. It is tough for you to sit still for an extended period of time, especially if you are not interested in the topic.
Task initiation is the ability to start something promptly without procrastinating. This is a critical skill to develop so you can finish projects on time.
If you have poor task initiation, you will have a hard time actually taking the first step in starting a project. You will likely leave things to the last minute and struggle to complete the job on time. It also may mean you have a hard time knowing where to start when given a task.
Planning involves creating a list of steps to achieve a goal or get things done. Planning involves prioritizing activities in order of importance in a logical sequence. Planning helps with goal setting. It allows you to spend time on the things that matter and complete tasks in an orderly manner.
If you have poor planning skills, things likely take you a lot longer than they should because you have not done things in an efficient manner. For example, when running errands instead of thinking of the most direct way to get the tasks done with the least amount of overlap, you go from item to item often crossing your tracks and backtracking.
Organization relates to both the physical environment and thoughts. Cognitively, this means that it is easy for you to think logically and sequentially. It also means that when you learn new information, you store it in your memory correctly for future use. In your environment, you have everything in a clean and organized fashion.
If you have weak organizations skills, you likely have a hard time staying focused on one thought process at a time. You are also likely to have a hard time locating things you need.
Time Management refers to the ability to analyze time in several different ways. It means being able to know how much time you have to do something, estimate how much time it will take you, and how to stay within the limits of the timeline you have set.
If you have poor time management, you are not good at judging how long something will take you to complete. You also have a hard time keeping track of how much time has passed.
Goal-directed persistence means that someone can have a goal and knows how to work towards it without being distracted. It is not enough to just set goals, they have to be able to follow through.
If you have poor goal-directed behaviour, it doesn’t mean that you don’t know how to set goals, it means that you have a hard time reaching the goals you set for yourself.
If you have a weakness in any one of these areas, there are things that you can do to work on developing these skills. Educators can start to build different aspects of these skills into their lessons. This will help all students develop their executive functions.
Dawson, P. & Guare, R. (2012). Coaching students with executive skills deficits. Guilford Press.
Diamond, A. (2013). Understanding executive functions: What helps or hinders them and how executive functions and language development mutually support one another. Perspectives on Language and Literacy, 40(2), 7 – 11.
Silver, L. (January 22, 2019). Executive dysfunction, explained! Retrieved from https://www.additudemag.com/executive-function-disorder-adhd-explained/?src=embed_link