Understanding Executive Functioning: An Overview and Helpful Resources

The term “executive functioning skills” is a stand-in for a range of thinking and problem-solving skills that help us to manage our day-to-day lives.  They are mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.

Executive functioning skills can be broken down into 3 inter-related cognitive processes:

1. Working memory, which governs our ability to retain and manipulate distinct pieces of information over short periods of time;
2. Mental flexibility, which helps us to sustain or shift attention in response to different demands or to apply different rules in different settings; and
3. Self-control, which enables us to set priorities and resist impulsive actions or responses. Thus, executive functioning skills affect our ability to manage everyday tasks, but are also implicated in both emotional and behavioral regulation (e.g. curbing emotional outbursts or inhibiting impulsive behavior).

While everyone has the potential to develop executive functioning skills, the rate of development varies significantly.  In addition, weaknesses in executive functioning skills are present in individuals with AD/HD, and are also linked to anxiety, depression, learning disorders and autism spectrum disorders.  Even individuals who generally have intact executive functioning skills can experience temporary disruption in their executive functioning when they are stressed, sad, or sleep-deprived.

Determining whether your child has inherent weaknesses in the area of executive functioning depends on a range of factors, including the age of your child, the level of demands being placed on him/her, the consistency of his/her behaviors, and whether there are other factors that are adversely affecting his/her functioning (e.g. recent traumas or unusual stressors).  For example, while almost every school-age child on occasion loses track of directions, forgets to turn in an assignment, has trouble getting started on a task, or behaves impulsively, a chronic pattern of struggles across more than one of these areas could be suggestive of an underlying weakness in executive functioning skills.  An assessment by a clinical psychologist may be warranted in this case.

If you want to learn more about executive functioning and how it affects day-to-day functioning, about how to recognize weaknesses in executive functioning in your child, and/or about how to enhance the development of executive functioning skills in your child, there are numerous resources available, including the materials linked below.

A More Extensive Review of Executive Functioning:

How to Recognize Weaknesses in Executive Functioning Skills at Different Ages:

Guide to Enhancing Executive Functioning Skills in Children and Teens:

Kathleen Boykin McElhaney, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist