Executive Functioning YouTube Videos

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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 weaknesses are 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
  • procrastinate
  • have difficulty controlling their emotions
  • struggle to stay on task
  • have problems completing work independently
  • struggle with time management
  • have problems controlling their behavior
  • 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 behaviors 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

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

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

Inhibitory control is sometimes referred to as mindfulness or emotional regulation. Inhibitory control is needed if you want to change your behavior. 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

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 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 organizational 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

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

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 behavior, 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.   If you would like more information about how you can receive Executive Function Coaching, please contact Garforth Education at info@garfortheducation.com

Reference: 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


Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder or ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that has three presentation types: Inattentive, Hyperactive/Impulsive and Combined.  A neurodevelopmental disorder means that it relates to how the brain functions and it is not due to parenting strategies or psychological stress.  

When people hear the word ADHD, they typically think of what they have seen on television or movies where the character is going a mile a minute and bouncing off the walls.  If these characters were to be diagnosed with ADHD, they would likely be considered to have the Hyperactive/Impulsive Presentation of ADHD and not the Inattentive presentation.

An individual with the Inattentive Presentation of ADHD symptoms or traits is not as outwardly apparent to an observer. These individuals have a hard time with their organization skills and paying attention for a sustained time period. Like most conditions, if an individual is able to come up with different strategies and coping skills to manage their symptoms, it can be difficult for others to know how hard they are working to get through the day.  


The term ADHD Inattentive Presentation means that when the individual was assessed for ADHD, they met the diagnostic criteria based on behaviours relating to inattention.  One analogy that I heard years ago about an individual with ADHD is something along the lines of ‘Having ADHD is like having your brain always channel surfing.’  This description would best describe an individual with the Inattentive Presentation of ADHD because it is as if they are always using part of their attention to check if there is something else that is more important or needs to be done.

When working with an individual with the Inattentive Presentation of ADHD it is important to remember that the individual is not acting this way on purpose, it is part of who they are and how their brain functions.  Try to be patient with them and help them refocus when you can see their mind is wandering to something else.  It can be very frustrating, but remember, the individual is likely just as frustrated that they cannot provide the same focus and attention to detail as individuals without ADHD.


For the examples in this post, I will be using a fictional character named Sam who has ADHD Inattentive Presentation.  Please note these are just examples and I am not describing a real individual.

They are disorganized in life and can have a hard time following instructions and completing tasks

An individual with the Inattentive Presentation of ADHD struggles with the organization in all aspects of their life. The individual's house will likely be very disorganized, and they will have difficulty locating things that they need. They have trouble completing tasks in a timely and sequential manner and may jump to another job before finishing the first.

For example, imagine Sam has to clean up the kitchen after making a big meal.  The first thing he wants to do is to bring all the dishes from the table to the kitchen sink.  As Sam is clearing the dishes, he notices that the dishwasher has the clean light on so he stops clearing the table to unload the dishwasher. When he is part way unloading the dishwasher, he steps on some spilt food on the floor and decides he better sweep the floor before anything else because Sam doesn't want to make more of a mess by tracking food all through the kitchen while he is cleaning up.  Sam decides to make a couple of piles in the kitchen as he sweeps.  He puts the first pile into the dustpan and goes to empty it into the garbage.  When he is at the garbage can, Sam notices that it is overflowing and that he should really empty it.  As he is coming back inside after taking the garbage out, he notices the mail by the front door and sees his favourite magazine has arrived. He can't wait to look through it, so he decides to take a quick look through it.  In this short period, Sam has started three tasks in the kitchen but only finished one of them.  When Sam sees a job that needs to be done, he forgets to finish the current job he is working on and goes ahead to start the next task.


They often lose things

Losing things goes hand in hand with disorganization. If someone struggles with keeping things tidy in a logical, well thought out manner, it only makes sense that they lose the things they need.  This could be because the individual has not established a dedicated spot for putting these essential items or because they were distracted in the middle of doing something and they moved on to the next task before finishing the first.

If you think of the example used above with Sam trying to clean up the kitchen, Sam quickly moved from one task to another before he finished the first task.  Before he moved on to the next task, he did not take the time to return the items he was using to where they belong.  The next time he needs the broom and he goes to get it out of the broom closet, do you think he will remember that it is actually beside the garbage?  


They find it difficult to perform tasks that require long periods of concentration

An individual with ADHD Inattentive Presentation will have difficulty concentrating on something for an extended period such as school, homework, attending a presentation, reading long documents.

For example, Sam is sitting in class at school and is having a very hard time concentrating on what the teacher is talking about.  He is continually fidgeting and looking around the classroom.


They don’t seem to be listening when you are speaking to them directly

It can be very frustrating to try to have a conversation with someone who has the Inattentive Presentation of ADHD because they can be looking at you right in the eye when you are talking to them but have no idea what you are talking about.  This is particularly frustrating in situations when there is nothing else going on while you are talking to them.  In this instance, the individual is likely paying more attention to their own thoughts than to what you are saying.


They are easily distracted by unrelated things

When an individual with the Inattentive Presentation of ADHD is in an environment where there is a lot of stuff going on, it can be challenging for them to focus on the task at hand.  For example, think of something as commonplace as going out for a meal at a restaurant.  This situation can be challenging because there are so many different things that can serve as distractions.

Let's say Sam is going out for dinner with a few friends, but his friends are getting frustrated because Sam is not involved in the conversation they are having.  What they don't realize is while Sam is trying to be a contributing member to the discussion at his table, he also is following the conversations that are happening at the tables around him.  He is not eavesdropping intentionally to be rude, but it is hard for him to focus on one conversation when there are so many other conversations going on around him.  It is particularly hard if one of the tables is talking about something that interests him. He also may get distracted by music that is playing in the background.  If he hears a familiar song, it may trigger a specific memory, and reminiscing about this memory can take his attention away from actively enjoying the meal with friends.


They are often forgetful when it comes to daily activities

If you have someone who is disorganized and often loses things, it isn’t hard to understand why they may struggle with things like remembering to pay bills on time or completing their chores.

Sam has a hard time organizing his finances and paying his bills on time.  He finds it hard to remember when the different bills are due and where he needs to get the information from.  He also struggles to remember to check the balance on his credit cards and to make sure he has enough money in his bank account to cover his expenses. 


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association.