What is Executive Functioning?

Most people have heard references to “executive functioning skills” and may have been told how important they are. However, I get asked all the time what executive functioning skills are, why they matter, and how they can be developed. Part of the challenge seems to be that “executive functioning skills” include a very large range of cognitive skills. The terms used can also be confusing.

Executive functioning skills are mental processes that help us start, work on, and complete tasks. They are critical to our daily lives and accomplishments. As children get older, these skills are increasingly important and they are expected to demonstrate more advanced skills with fewer supports. 

To build some familiarity with what people mean when they talk about executive functioning, below are descriptions of some critical executive functioning skills and how they come into play in everyday life:

Flexibility – This is the ability to adapt to changes and challenges. Flexibility involves considering and integrating new information, especially if it is contradictory to previously held ideas or knowledge. Transitions between tasks and adjusting behavior and expectations based on the environment are examples of some of the ways that flexibility gets applied in daily life. 

Metacognition – Metacognition refers to “thinking about thinking”. This includes awareness of what we know and what we do not, which is critical to developing plans for learning and when asking for help. Reflecting on experiences, especially mental experiences, can require metacognition. It also helps with awareness of one’s strengths and weaknesses and interests.

Organization – Organization is a very broad term. It includes organization of spaces like a desk, car, bedroom, or backpack. It also includes organization of possessions and keeping track of possessions (i.e., not losing or misplacing things). Time management and efficient use of time are versions of organization. In order to tell a story or teach a game to someone, we have to be able to organize our ideas. 

Perseverance – Perseverance is the ability to stick with a task that may be challenging and takes a long time and/or a lot of effort. Our perseverance is tested when we have a problem or experience a setback on the way to a goal. 

Planning – This includes deciding the relative priority of different responsibilities or tasks, breaking tasks into component parts and timelines, and gathering materials and information before starting a task.

Task Initiation – This includes independently starting tasks, taking initiative, and making efficient use of time. People who struggle with this are prone to procrastination. Task initiation is also an important skill when presented with free time; people who have good task initiation skills are able to generate and enact ideas to effectively use their time. 

Time Management – This includes estimating how long it will take to do something, prioritizing, breaking a task into component timelines, pacing through tasks like tests, and estimating time needed for tasks.

Working Memory – Working memory refers to our ability to hold information in mind long enough to do something with it. Working memory is active when we remember directions, know what to buy at the grocery store, and follow directions to a new location. It is also critical for reading comprehension, following the plot of a movie, mental math, conversations, and telling stories.

If, as you read the information above, you recognize an area of executive functioning challenge/weakness for yourself or your child, it may be useful to further explore that particular executive function(s) and learn strategies that can be used to improve one’s skills in that area(s).  Recommended resources for more information include: www.chadd.org, www.childmind.org, and www.understood.org


Joyce Matthews-Rurak, PsyD

Licensed Clinical Psychologist