Girl lying in the field of dandelions.

What Is Executive Function?

Executive function is a set of mental processes that helps us manage, plan, and organize our activities in order to achieve a certain goal [1]. Extensive neuropsychological research places it in the prefrontal cortex and even though it forms in early childhood, it continues to develop and change throughout our lifetime. It plays an essential part in our everyday dealings and we rely on it when faced with situations that require us to make decisions and see them through. If we were to compare our brains to a complex organization, executive function would be the equivalent of a CEO. Essentially, executive function is what allows us to get things done, and it’s important to understand how it works so that we can really appreciate its value and potentially work on improving it.

Areas of Executive Function and Executive-Functioning Skills

Executive function is a complex construct consisting of three key components or areas, which are: working memory, cognitive flexibility, and impulse control. All of these components are interconnected and together allow us to do things like process information, switch from task to task, and hold back impulsive behavior.

Working memory represents the more advanced understanding of our short-term memory, the one we use to store information happening in the present and hold onto it for a brief period of time in order to deal with a task at hand. So, for example, if you’re having a conversation with someone, working memory is allowing you to follow what they’re saying and respond or engage them by asking relevant questions.

Cognitive flexibility refers to our ability to adapt our mental strategies to new conditions. When faced with a task we’ve never encountered in the past, cognitive flexibility allows us to rapidly use our past experience, knowledge, and skills to overcome that particular challenge.

Impulse control is referred to as self-control in layman’s terms. It is our capability to subdue impulsive behavior and refrain from acting abruptly to a specific stimulus. For instance, if you’re feeling frustrated, impulse control is what holds you back from lashing out at others, keeps you calm, and allows you to rationally assess the situation.

These key areas enable us to perform complex mental tasks such as:

Paying attention – being able to focus and process information for an extended period of time.
Planning and organizing – setting up the proper conditions and taking the right steps in the process of decision-making and overcoming challenges.
Time assessment and time management – being able to predict the time it would take to complete a certain task and adjusting your activities in order to complete the most tasks in the shortest amount of time.
Initiating and completing tasks – actually getting started with an activity that will help you complete a task and see it through.
Prioritizing – being able to assess the importance of tasks and to rank them accordingly.

The combined effort of the key areas is needed in order to complete these tasks, but not all of them are always being activated. For instance, paying attention depends on the use of working memory and impulse control, while planning and organizing require all three. Being able to perform these activities successfully is referred to as having executive-functioning skills.

Executive function can be trained and improved over time, which means that understanding how it works can be a huge benefit in terms of both academic and real-life success.

Hot and Cool Executive Functions: An Emotional Context

When studying human behavior, it’s always a good rule of thumb to have the question of context in mind. Some phenomena may be more or less consistent but they are usually connected to a network of factors and can have different interpretations depending on the situation. Such is the case with executive function, which is contextually related to and affected by an emotional factor. That is why we differentiate between hot and cool executive functions [2].

Hot executive functions are used when emotions are running high. In order for them to be activated, a certain amount of tension between instant and long-term gratification needs to exist. On the other hand, cool executive functions are activated when there is no emotional arousal whatsoever.

The most important thing that determines whether we’re going to use hot or cool executive functions is the way in which we perceive the challenge in front of us. It’s a matter of individual differences, meaning there are specific situations out there that would invoke the use of hot executive functions in some, while others will be able to remain cool.

How to Spot an Executive-Function Deficit

The most representative behaviors that will help you identify executive functioning issues are:

Poor planning and organization – working in messy conditions without having the “bigger picture” in mind.
Impulsive behavior – lacking impulse control and overreacting.
Struggling with time management – always being late for scheduled appointments and missing deadlines.
Lack of and/or inability to focus – attention tends to drift in the middle of an important activity.
Working-memory difficulties – having difficulty retaining information for short periods of time.
Procrastination – avoiding or struggling to initiate task resolution.
Prioritization issues – not being able to determine the importance of certain tasks.
Rigid thinking patterns – showing frustration when asked to think about a certain issue in a different way.

If you are a parent of a child who is struggling in a similar way and exhibiting one or more symptoms, then they might have an executive-functioning issue. We have prepared an online executive-functioning course for parents, which explores many different aspects of the concept, providing you with:

Real-life examples of executive-functioning skills and issues!
Direct advice on how to improve executive functioning!
Access to a whole community of parents just like you!
And tons more information about executive function!

Take a look at this introductory video with our Coach Ana, which briefly sums up what the course is all about.

Executive Function and Psychological Disorders: Is Executive-Function Disorder a Thing?

In psychology, a sizable amount of data regarding specific mental processes and brain functions comes from examining the unfortunate cases of people exhibiting certain issues or complete lack thereof. Disorders in the domain of executive functioning are directly related to and reflect on the areas and skills we’ve discussed in the previous segment. That being said, executive function disorder as such is not yet recognized by the American Psychiatric Association officially. However, studies imply that executive-functioning challenges are closely connected to other cognitive disorders, such as ADHD and dyslexia.

ADHD and Executive Function

People suffering from ADHD are in fact struggling with scattered attention, impulsive behavior, and hyperactivity which leads to different social difficulties. You’re probably already able to sense the connection between these symptoms and what we previously defined as an executive-function deficit [3]. The fact of the matter is these two issues share the same neurophysiological background. Even though executive function can’t explain the cause of ADHD, it’s obvious that it is a component of how the disorder actually plays out. That is why children with ADHD can benefit from executive-function exercises and why consulting an executive function Coach is highly recommended.

Dyslexia and Executive Function

Dyslexia is a neurobiological learning disability characterized by difficulties with word recognition, spelling, and decoding abilities [4]. Studies show that children with dyslexia also experience challenges in areas related to executive function, like verbal and visual short-term processing and attention. By strategically improving these domains of executive function, children with dyslexia can learn how to compensate for and overcome the limiting nature of their disability. Once again, consulting an executive-function Coach can help you devise a plan to systematically work on tackling this issue.

Academic and Real-Life Examples of Executive-Function Deficits and Issues

It’s very important for us to understand that executive-functioning issues are not only found in a school setting, but also interfere with everyday activities such as doing chores, having productive conversations, and even affect the simple act of playing. On that note, we will describe two scenarios – academic and real life – connected to executive-functioning issues.

Mary is four and she has recently started preschool. A couple of days ago, she threw a tantrum when another child from the class didn’t want to share a stuffed toy elephant. At the end of each day, she’s almost always the last one ready, usually because she left her things all over the classroom and then forgot where they were. Her teacher noticed that often during group activities and interaction, she responds by saying things completely unrelated to the topic or task.

Josh is 16, and his parents feel that something is just not right. He often wanders from room to room, starts doing one thing and quickly switches to another. His chores are a similar story. He often procrastinates and puts things off, like cleaning the garage or folding his laundry, and even when he does manage to start doing them, he either quits soon after or doesn’t do a very good job. He’s recently asked for his allowance to be increased but left the discussion abruptly, showing signs of frustration when asked to back up his request with arguments.

Remember that taking a holistic approach is very important when determining whether or not someone has issues with executive function. Both of these examples contain descriptions of behaviors representative of executive-functioning issues, but they are exclusively exploring situations related to a specific setting. Only by looking at the whole picture are we able to claim that someone is actually suffering from an executive-function deficit and that other factors are not at play, such as lack of motivation.

If you think your child is struggling in similar ways, our Coaches are highly experienced with resolving specific executive-functioning issues and helping children overcome the deficits that accompany them.

Why Is Understanding Executive Function so Important?

Executive function refers to a set of mental processes that help us handle most of our everyday activities. Many aspects of concepts like creativity, problem-solving, and good decision-making rely on these processes. The good news is that we can help our kids develop and improve their executive function. The really good news is that we can use their personal strengths to compensate for those skills they find hard to improve. We’re not talking about complex programs that are costly and time-consuming, but about everyday activities that facilitate growth and learning.

It is evident that children would benefit from a structured and systematic practice of executive-functioning skills. That is exactly why it’s important for every parent to be familiar with the concept, so that they can help their children directly by encouraging activities which nurture executive function. Furthermore, in the bigger picture of educating children in general, it’s crucial that teachers are also well acquainted with executive function, so they can adapt their curriculum to encourage its development.

Author: Predrag Mladenovic

References:

Zelazo, P. D., & Cunningham, W. (2005). What is executive function? AboutkidsHealth. Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto. (Part one of a multi-part series). Recuperado el, 2.
Goldstein, S., & Naglieri, J. A. (Eds.). (2013). Handbook of executive functioning. Springer Science & Business Media.
Meltzer, L. (Ed.). (2018). Executive function in education: From theory to practice. Guilford Publications.

Did you enjoy how we answered the question of ‘what is executive function?’
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