What Is All The Talk About Executive Functioning?

What is Executive Function?
“Executive Function” is a term used to describe a set of “mental processes” or brain-based skills that are required for humans to execute or perform tasks effectively. It is the executive functions that help us carry out independent, purposeful, and goal directed behaviors. Executive skills help kids get done what needs to be get done and helps them carry out classroom demands, even at the most fundamental level.

Executive Functions and the Brain
Executive skills are tied to the frontal lobes of the brain or more specifically the frontal (thinking) cortex of the brain. In general, the frontal lobes decide what is worth attending to and what is worth doing, provide continuity to behavior across time, modulate affective and interpersonal behaviors, and monitor, evaluate, and adjust behaviors and actions. (I use the following analogy: the frontal cortex of our brain is like an orchestra conductor who needs to be on his/her game at all times in order to smoothly and efficiently “orchestrate” the various instruments (or various executive skills) in a way that results in successful music (or successful implementation of the executive skill (s) that a situation calls for). When the orchestra conductor is not available or takes a long coffee break, we see “inconsistent” and less than optimal executive functioning (in children that have true impairments in executive functioning due to genetic/biological reasons, the orchestra conductor (known as the neurochemical dopamine is not consistently flowing and thus available in a way needed to provide adequate stimulation to the frontal part of the brain). Therefore, the frontal part of the brain is truly under-stimulated and not able to consistently do what it needs to do in order to carry out demands successfully.

What are the Specific Executive Skills?
Executive skills can be divided into two categories: Thinking (cognition skills) and Doing (behavior skills).

Executive skills in the thinking domain include:

Working Memory-the ability to hold information in memory while performing tasks

Planning/prioritization-the ability to create a “roadmap” to reach a goal or complete a task

Organization-the ability to create and maintain systems to keep track of things and materials and maintain a sense of order

Time Management-the capacity to estimate how much time one has and how to make the best use of it in order to be efficient

Metacognition-the ability to self-monitor and self-evaluate skills

Executive Skills in the behavior domain include:

Response Inhibition-the capacity to think before you act, reflect on behavior from previous experience before responding, and resist the urge to say or do something (this skill acts as our “filter”)

Emotional Control-the ability to manage emotions and temper reactions to upsetting events

Sustained Attention-the capacity to keep paying attention to a task or situation in spite of boredom or distractibility

Task Initiation-the ability to begin/initiate tasks/projects without undue procrastination

Goal-directed persistence-the capacity to have a goal and follow through to the completion of the goal

Flexibility-the ability to revise plans or make adjustments to meet the task demands or adaptability to changing conditions (also known as “shifting gears”).

What Can be Done to Help Improve Executive Functioning skills?
There are various effective strategies one can use to improve functioning. Interventions may take place at the level of the environment (assure environmental goodness of fit for child and make individual modifications as deemed necessary).

Interventions can also take place at the level of the person (teaching executive skills, which can be done with an ADHD or Executive Functioning Coach) and practicing until the skills are mastered independently or with minimal support. Learning the executive function skill and practicing it time over and over again until mastered is the best way to improve these skills.

Often times, problems in executive functions are seen in children who have ADHD. Though ADHD is called an attention deficit disorder, it is also a disorder of executive functioning and can lead to several behaviors including (but not limited to) hyperactivity, difficulty tempering reactions to upsetting events, attention deficits, poor motivation, low frustration and boredom tolerance, shifting attention from one situation to another flexibly and disorganization. This is mentioned because many children with ADHD have impairments in executive functions at levels that compromise their optimal productivity in daily living. In these cases, where challenges in executive functions are impairing one’s optimal functioning, then it is recommended that a consultation with your child’s current pediatrician or a child psychiatrist be to explore the possible utility of medication as part of a comprehensive treatment approach to ADHD be considered. This is important because if a child has significant impairments in attention and modulation of behaviors then it will be hard for him or her to learn executive functions, practice them, and generalize them into his/her environment.

The Bottom Line
The brain continues to mature and develop connections well into early adulthood, and a person’s executive function abilities are shaped by both physical changes in the brain and by life experiences in the classroom and general environment children interact in day to day. Most individuals have an array of executive function skill strengths as well as weaknesses. Early attention to the development of these skills can be very helpful in identifying what areas a child needs more practice in and help develop and implement interventions to enhance these areas.

Maria Kanakos, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist