Executive Function

What Exactly Is Executive Function?

Executive Function is a “self-management system of the brain” (FOOTNOTE BELOW). It is a set of skills that allow people to control their behavior and direct it toward longer-term goals, rather than doing what is automatic or easiest to accomplish.
There are three broad categories where executive skills come into play:

1. learning
2. behavior and emotions, and
3. social situations and relationships.

While The StudyPro focuses most directly on learning skills, the behavioral and emotional side have a large effect on learning success (e.g. anxiety that causes avoidance of work, etc.).

Learners develop their executive skills at vastly different times in their academic careers. Some students come by executive skills naturally and don’t need to “externalize” the process. Others need support with developing strategies for success until the process becomes natural for them. The continuum for brain maturation is natural and appropriate, but not forgiving to the student who has not internalized the necessary skills to meet the demands of their school curriculum.

Frequently Asked Questions about Executive Function

Per ADDitutude Magazine: “Think of executive function as what the chief executive officer of a company must do — analyze, organize, decide, and execute. Very similarly, the six steps of executive function are:

1. Analyze a task
2. Plan how to address the task
3. Organize the steps needed to carry out the task
4. Develop timelines for completing the task
5. Adjust or shift the steps, if needed, to complete the task
6. Complete the task in a timely way”

Certain skills are critical for students to both survive and thrive in school:

  • Managing time
  • Organizing thoughts and materials
  • Paying attention
  • Planning and prioritizing
  • Getting started (task initiation)
  • Staying on track
  • Remembering what to do and when to do it
  • Problem solving
  • Reflecting on past behavior and outcomes
  • Managing feelings and emotions
  • Strong Executive Function Skills are essential in every transition process. Key transition times are where demands of completing schoolwork independently increase and the increased expectations/workload trigger signs of a problem with executive function.

    Lack of EF skills become most apparent during these times, as there is a jump in workload and school expectations. You can have a student who is doing very well and then all of a sudden, they are showing signs of stress because school expectations have outpaced student readiness and skills.

    High IQ doesn’t equal High Executive Function. Smart kids may be missing key (organizational) skills. Just because you have a high IQ doesn’t guarantee you have well-developed Executive Function skills. Generally students with “Executive Dysfunction” are in the top 5% of the population in terms of IQ, but they haven’t been taught the tools and strategies required to achieve their academic potential.
    There is a lot written about this question, and it is an important one. While we can not attempt to fully answer it here, per Thomas E. Brown, Ph.D., “ADD/ADHD is a cognitive disorder, a developmental impairment of executive functions (EFs) — the self-management system of the brain.”

    While they share some of their respective symptoms, there is a definite difference between ADHD and Executive Function Disorder. A child or adult with ADHD might be hyperactive, inattentive, and/or impulsive. Executive Functioning problems involve a pattern of chronic difficulties in executing daily tasks.

    The following six clusters of executive functions tend to be impaired in individuals with ADD/ADHD:

    1. Activation: organizing tasks and materials, estimating time, getting started.
    2. Focus: focusing, sustaining focus, and shifting focus between tasks.
    3. Effort: regulating alertness, sustaining effort and processing speed.
    4. Emotion: managing frustration and modulating emotions.
    5. Memory: using working memory and accessing recall.
    6. Action: monitoring/ regulating actions.

    Per ADDitude magazine, EFD is often difficult to ignore during the transitions to 6th or 9th grade, when the structure of elementary school disappears, and academic expectations increase. Parents and teachers often don’t get why kids can’t work independently on an assignment, and assume they’ll “pick up” the necessary skills. It’s important to start helping kids with ADHD/EFD early, and acknowledge the problems those disorders cause so that kids don’t feel stupid or lazy.


    Executive Function 101 – Prepared by The National Center for Learning Disabilities
    How do I know if my child has executive function issues? – The Child Mind Institute
    Executive Function at a Glance – 8 key Executive Functions – Understood.Org
    Meet executive function: How to learn in the age of information overload – The Brookings Institution
    Activities and Programs That Improve Children’s Executive Functions – NIH
    The skills students need to be succeessful in college and the workforce – Ryan Wexelblatt, MSS, LSW

    What’s the difference between Executive Function and ADHD?