What Are Executive Functions?
Executive functions are brain-based cognitive skills that facilitate critical thinking and self-regulation. Executive functions call upon the prefrontal cortex of our brains to help with goal-setting and decision making. Executive functions include a set of related skills that help prioritize, regulate, and orchestrate an individual’s thoughts and behaviors. The executive functions help individuals manage their feelings and actions, monitor their behavior, and attend to their experiences from the past and the present.
Executive Functions Help With:
- “What to do” skills: starting tasks, paying attention, persevering, and remembering.
- “How to do” skills: planning, organizing, shifting strategies, and managing time. They also help people manage their perceptions, thoughts, actions, and social interactions.
Psychologists have described executive functions with dozens of definitions, including those by Russell Barkley, Thomas Brown, and Peg Dawson and Richard Guare. The consensus is that executive functions orchestrate various brain functions that integrate a person’s perceptions, experiences, cognitions, and memories toward goal-directed behavior.
We have chosen a modified version of the model described by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare as the basis for our descriptions of executive functions. We believe that their description is an excellent fit for understanding how children use executive functions in their day-to-day lives. It is important to note that this list of executive functions is neither comprehensive nor categorical. For example, specific skills seen in planning may also be described in organization. In addition, examples of executive dysfunctions, such as problems in completing homework, often involve many executive function skills, such as time management, perseverance, and sustained attention. (Click here to learn more about the Theories of Executive Functioning)
The 12 Executive Functions
In our broader LearningWorks for Kids website, we have chosen to condense the 12 Executive Functions into 8 Thinking Skills. The 12 function model below provides more detail and is based upon the theories of Peg Dawson and Richard Guare.
- Flexibility – The ability to be adaptable, improvise, and shift approaches to demands.
- Goal-Directed Persistence - The ability to persevere with tasks that require sustained effort. (Part of the Thinking Skill of Focus)
- Metacognition – The ability to self-monitor and observe. (Part of the Thinking Skill of Self-Awareness)
- Organization – The ability to use a systematic approach to achieve a goal.
- Planning – The ability to develop a set of strategies in order to accomplish a goal.
- Regulation of Affect – The ability to manage one’s feelings effectively for decision-making and task completion. (Part of the Thinking Skill of Self-Control)
- Response Inhibition – The ability to stop or delay an action rather than display impulsive behavior. (Part of the Thinking Skill of Self-Control)
- Social Thinking – The ability to respond appropriately to social conditions. (Part of the Thinking Skill of Self-Awareness)
- Sustained Attention – The ability to maintain one’s focus and attention in the presence of distractions. (Part of the Thinking Skill of Focus)
- Task Initiation – The ability to initiate a task without procrastination. (Part of the Thinking Skill of Focus)
- Time Management – The ability to respond to things in a timely fashion.
- Working Memory - The ability to remember relevant information and apply it to the task at hand.
To learn more about the research behind the Executive Functions, see our page on Theories of Executive Functioning.
Who Struggles With Executive Functioning?
Many children and adults have difficulties with one or more executive functions. It is not uncommon for parents to report their own problems with Organization or Working Memory. Task initiation and Time Management difficulties are often seen in school and work settings. In fact, most people who struggle with executive functioning are never "diagnosed" with a problem but simply see it as an area of weakness for them. In today's complicated, and disconcerting world, deficits in these skills can cause problems in managing one's life and getting things done efficiently.
Children with psychiatric issues, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder; learning disabilities; and problems in social, emotional, and behavioral functioning, often display impairments in their use of executive functions. They may display difficulties in getting started on tasks, sustaining attention and effort levels, following multi-step directions, staying organized, and managing time effectively. It is important to note that many children will display executive strengths in certain areas and dysfunctions in others. These differences can often be explained by both biological and environmental factors.
Other childhood psychiatric conditions, such as Autism, Aspergers Disorder, Anxiety Disorders, and Tourettes Disorder, may be significantly impacted by executive dysfunctions. For example, a child with Aspergers Disorder may be extremely rigid, with limited executive functioning skills in the areas of flexibility and social thinking.
Executive functioning difficulties are often undiagnosed in many children, but their problems are usually identifiable through school. Children with executive functioning difficulties often manifest as Alternative Learners, or students who struggle in traditional classrooms.
For information on the relationship between Executive Functions and specific disorders, see our page on Executive Dysfunctions.
How Do Executive Functions Develop Throughout Childhood?
Executive functioning skills develop throughout childhood and early adulthood. Children as young as eight-months-old are observed displaying consciously-controlled behaviors that reflect executive functions. As children get older, they display increasing skill in solving problems and maintaining thoughts and images in their minds. Demands for increasingly complex executive functions arise throughout childhood, but problems may not be noticed until children reach the middle-school years, when demands for organization and planning for the future become prominent.
Executive functions may be slow to develop in some individuals. Neuroscientists have indicated that the prefrontal portion of the cortex, the area of the brain most responsible for executive functions, is among the last regions of the brain to mature. In the past, it was often believed that brain-based capacities could not be changed. However, recent research linking a number of brain exercises to the development of new neural networks in the brain suggests that training can promote improvements in brain activity.
Development of Executive Functioning
The first signs of executive functioning in infants begin to emerge when a child approaches the age of 1. A child’s ability to consciously control his/her thoughts, actions, and emotions can be observed when he/she begins to search for an object that has been hidden by a parent or sibling. This type of activity, described by Philip David Zelazo, Ph.D. as a form of “hide-and-seek,” suggests executive functioning skills, since the baby is able to keep the hidden object in mind and perform an action. This process is considered to constitute a conscious effort in the pursuit of a goal.
As a children approach the age of 2, they begin to show the ability to comply with verbal rules and directions. In addition, children at this stage begin to keep verbal rules in mind and use them to guide their behaviors. By the age of 4, children begin to display more flexible behavior rather than the persevering behaviors that they may have demonstrated at the age of 3. Their decision-making capacities, and, in turn, their executive functioning skills, allow them to begin considering more than one possible answer.
The development of executive functions directly parallels brain growth and development in children. The synapses, or connections, among neurons in the brain reach their peak density between the ages of 1 and 2. These synapses are then pruned, or deleted, so that the stronger connections in the brain remain. This process helps the frontal lobe of the brain form stronger links to the rest of the brain, facilitating executive functioning. Individuals with significant damage to their frontal lobes and prefrontal cortex have numerous deficits in executive functioning, including high levels of impulsivity, poor judgment, irresponsibility, and numerous difficulties with decision making and monitoring their behavior.
As a child's brain matures, it not only grows in size through a regeneration of neurons but also develops an extraordinary number of branches that allow for nerve cells to communicate with each other, increasing the capacity for complex thinking and decision making. Executive functions do not operate independently in decision making and are highly dependent upon the quality of information that the brain receives. Of particular importance are environmental factors and learning experiences that contribute to brain growth and development. The quality of executive functioning skills may be based upon accurate sensations of one's world, emotional and motivational states, memory capacity, and the ability to use language.
One prominent theory of executive functioning development was formulated by Russell Barkley, Ph.D., who proposed that, within the first 6 to 12 months of life, children are developing the executive function of behavioral inhibition. Behavioral inhibition allows a child to think before acting and to decide when, or if to respond to a situation. Barkley suggests that the skill of Working Memory, which involves holding events in the mind, occurs next. This skill is followed by the internalization of speech, which involves the use of language to aid in decision making. The next stage involves the self-regulation of affect, emotional self-control, and the regulation of motivation and energy in order to achieve a goal. This stage is followed by what Barkley refers to as reconstitution, which involves the capacity to analyze and monitor one's behavior and the ability to develop strategies for using one's skills in order to solve new problems.
Executive functioning in children appears to develop in a sequential fashion. Distinct growth patterns have been observed, indicating periods of intense development between the ages of 5 and 7, 9 and 12, and during adolescence. Between the ages of 5 and 7, children typically begin to display the capacity for longer periods of sustained attention and the use of silent verbal mediation to guide themselves. Information-processing capacities, accuracy, and fluency dramatically increase between ages 9 and 12. Adolescence brings the capacity to consider “what if” situations and also precipitates increased planning, organizational, and problem-solving skills.
Interestingly, recent research indicates that the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until an individual reaches his/her early to mid-30s. This long-term development may account, in part, for why individuals choose to “settle down” when they reach this age. Other recent studies indicate that the circuitry in the frontal and temporal areas of the brain shows a maturational delay in children with ADHD and problems in executive controls. The most recent research data from the National Institute of Mental Health are somewhat unclear as to whether individuals with ADHD/executive dysfunctions eventually “catch up” in the development of these brain areas. The recent advances in neuroscience and brain imagery techniques all point to the same conclusions -- that environment, experience, and enrichment can lead to the growth and development of brain connections; that these gains can occur over an extended period of time; and that such progress can contribute to the development of executive functioning skills.
In school settings, such differences in developmental maturity may play an important role with regard to the varying degrees of academic success. Students who experience delays in the development of the prefrontal cortex, are likely to struggle with self-management skills and encounter difficulties with school-based tasks, such as long-term projects or lengthy writing assignments, that require the coordination of many executive skills. These students will benefit from a proactive approach that provides training and support from parents and teachers and creates opportunities for students to practice these executive fuctioning skills.
Why Are Executive Functions Important for Academic Performance?
A number of executive skills are easily identifiable as being crucial to classroom success. For example, the executive skills of Organization and Planning help students to write down their homework, remember to do it, and return it to class the next day. Executive skills such as task initiation, sustained attention, and task persistence are necessary for starting and completing long-term projects.
Executive functions are also directly related to the development of many academic skills. For example, Working Memory skills, used when a child is able to keep different sounds of a word in mind while sounding it out, are necessary for word-decoding. Working Memory skills are also required for reading comprehension, when a child needs to keep in mind what has occurred in previous sentences and then integrate this information in order to achieve a cohesive understanding of the text. Metacognition, the capacity to think about one's thinking, has become a crucial skill in the new math, in which children are required to not only provide an answer, but to also explain how they arrived at their answer. Executive functions play a role in other academic tasks, including reading fluency, written content, math computations, and note-taking.
Links between Academic Skills and Executive Functions
- Learning how to decode words.
- Keeping track of various elements of a story.
- Using context clues to aid in comprehension.
- Recalling previously-learned vocabulary.
- Manipulating and identifying sound patterns when decoding words.
- Integrating new content with background knowledge.
- Making inferences.
- Sustaining attention during a reading task.
- Persistence through distractions and frustrations.
- Taking time to absorb the material that is being read.
- Making connections before, during, and after reading.
- Self-checking and monitoring comprehension.
- Forming comprehension goals before reading.
- Devising a plan to monitor and reach goals.
- Using graphic organizers to keep track of information.
- Ordering and sequencing story events.
- Being able to focus on ideas as they come.
- Sustaining levels of attention and effort with regard to the physical act of writing.
- Not giving up when frustrated.
- Being able to get ideas down on paper with little hesitation or self-doubt.
- Brainstorming and writing down all ideas to keep from getting stuck.
- Thinking about one's ideas and how to best express them through writing.
- Revising and editing one's own work.
- Self-evaluating one’s product.
- Using time effectively to organize ideas and generate a product.
- Gauging the amount of time needed to produce a response for a test/quiz question or prompt.
- Brainstorming and outlining ideas (pre-writing).
- Thinking ahead about audience, purpose, and clarity of ideas.
- Keeping multiple ideas in mind at once.
- Being aware of sentence flow.
- Recalling spelling and grammar rules.
- Presenting ideas in a logical order.
- Prioritizing information.
- Transitioning between ideas.
- Identifying main ideas and supporting details.
- Following the multiple stages of writing (pre-writing, drafting, revising, editing, publishing).
- Being able to shift things around in one's writing and make appropriate revisions.
- Understanding that writing is a recursive process, thus being able to revisit and modify previous work.
- Keeping track of multi-step problems.
- Recalling which formulas to use when solving various problems.
- Recalling and applying problem-solving strategies.
- Sustaining attention to a problem-solving task, even when it becomes difficult.
- Staying focused on each step of a problem in order to solve it.
- Thinking ahead about the kind of problem that one is solving and the steps that one needs to take in order to solve it.
- Prioritizing problem-solving strategies.
- Organizing one's notations/images on paper in a clear way.
- Organizing the information in word problems and multi-step problems.
- Being able to explain and communicate in words one's own mathematical reasoning.
- Thinking about one's reasoning and determining whether or not it makes sense.
- Self-evaluating/checking one’s work.
- Shifting between different presentations of problems (i.e. word problems, equations, etc.).
- Shifting one's strategy or approach according to the present problem.
- Shifting between the modes of representation of one's work (i.e. notations, written sentences, charts or graphs, drawn pictures, etc.).
Adults and Executive Functioning
Adults with executive dysfunctions report a wide range of symptoms in their daily work lives. Some may simply report that their homes or desks at work are disorganized. Others describe tendencies to anger easily or to overreact to minor stressors. Very commonly, adults report memory lapses such as walking into the kitchen but forgetting what they went there to get. All of these can be considered to be examples of executive dysfunctions. For most adults, these problems do not interfere greatly with their day-to-day lives or their performance at work. However, for some individuals, these executive difficulties cause problems in relationships and inefficiencies at work and may have an impact on self-esteem.
Recent studies suggest that executive functioning skills can continue to develop and improve through the mid-30s. However, there are a number of executive skills that may be more time-sensitive, so the practice and development of these skills requires effort to be put in at a much younger age, when the human brain has enhanced plasticity to change. There are, however, dozens of recent studies suggesting that sustained “brain exercise” can result in maintaining a high level of executive functioning, as well as development of new neuronal connections in the brain. Many of these “brain-training” programs are being developed and marketed for older adults.
Executive functioning strengths and weaknesses are displayed somewhat differently in adults than in children. Difficulties with executive skills may play a larger role in relationship issues than they do with children. In addition, many adults with executive dysfunctions have never received any type of educational or psychiatric interventions for these concerns and most likely have not identified these concerns as treatable.
Current research suggests that many executive dysfunctions persist into adulthood. Hopefully, the increasing availability of information about executive functioning will benefit adults wishing to consider their own skill sets. The modified Dawson and Guare (2004) model of executive functioning skills can help adults to assess their executive strengths and weaknesses.
Latest Executive Functions Articles
If you want to improve your aerobic capacity, play full-court basketball instead of softball. If you want to improve your analytical skills learn to play chess or bridge, not Chutes and Ladders. If you really want to improve your aerobic conditioning or your analytical skills, play against people who are better than you, and see if they’ll teach you a few tricks. If you want to use video games to improve your child’s problem-solving skills and performance at school, you’ll need to choose the right games, ensure they are challenging enough, and — most importantly — connect the skills used in them to real-world situations and academic tasks.
This process is known as the generalization of learning.Continue reading