What is Executive Functioning?
Updated: May 5
In this post, I explain:
An orchestra is made up of 70 or more individual musicians. If they all are playing at their own tempo it would be a chaotic sound and not the unified beauty that an orchestra creates. The conductor plays the important role of setting the tempo to ensure all the individual musicians are performing together to create the music we enjoy. Executive functioning skills are the conductor in our brains making sure we are staying on task and focused on the millions of stimuli we experience every moment.
Executive functioning skills is an umbrella term used to generalize 10 different skills. When a child or adult has difficulty in one or more executive function skills, they may be labeled as “lazy” or “forgetful.” It is very rare that you will find a child or adult that has difficulty with all 10 areas of executive functioning.
Executive functioning difficulties are sometimes the symptom of a larger disorder.
These disorders include, but are not limited to:
Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder
Learning executive functioning skills is like any new skill. I have a 7-year old client with difficulty producing the /s/ sound. We worked together to produce the /s/ sound in isolation. The first time it was hard, the second time it was easier, and with each time, the sound got easier and easier to produce. It is the same with learning executive functioning skills. You may not be perfect at it right away, it takes practice .
Task initiation is one executive functioning skill. If you or your child can sometimes initiate tasks and other times cannot, motivation may not be the only thing at play. It may be that when tasks were initiated, executive functioning skills were being supported.
The prefrontal and frontal cortex are associated with many executive functions and they are among the last to fully mature in child development.
Now that I’ve given you a background on executive functioning skills, let’s dive right into these skills!
1. Task Initiation is the ability to begin a task without procrastination.
Task initiation is difficult! It often requires completing or stopping the task you are in the middle of. Do you really want to stop watching that movie so that you can complete math homework? How about stopping an art project when you should be working out? How about putting aside your favorite sports show to file those taxes?
Task initiation will help us complete tasks at school, work, or personal life in a timely fashion.
2. Task completion is the ability to complete a task in entirety.
In order to complete a task, we need to be able to initiate it. Do you know anyone who initiates a bunch of different tasks, but fails to complete a single one of them? I know someone who makes jewelry, but unfortunately he never had the opportunity to sell a complete piece, because he never finished a single item! It has been over three years and I have given up hope on ever seeing his creations.
While task initiation is very important, task completion is necessary in order for one to be successful.
3. Organization is the process of keeping track of your belongings and maintaining order in your personal space
As a young child, I recall my mother complaining about how my sister’s clothing was all over the floor. Mine were simply all over my chair so there was no complaining about me (in the area of organization, of course!) Organization is simply how the individual keeps track of his or her own things. In my sister’s case, she may have been considered a mess, but she was organized in her own way (she was able to find her belongings and it was an organized mess if you will). However, we all know those kids with messy backpacks who can’t seem to find their homework or the adults who don’t have their papers organized professionally.
Students need to be organized, as do adults, in order to succeed at both school and the workplace. Losing assignments, forgetting about projects, and not finding matching pants to your outfit will all impede one’s ability to be successful.
4. Focus is the ability to attend to tasks while filtering out other distractions. The two types of focus include sustained and divided focus. Sustained focus refers to the ability to work at a task long enough to complete it. Divided focus is the ability to manage several tasks at once.
When I was completing my undergraduate degree, I recall substituting a seventh grade math class. It was obvious which students were focused on my session and which were daydreaming, texting, or preoccupied with another activity. Focusing is very difficult when one is disinterested in the activity. Then if we take into account outside distractions, it seems impossible.
Focusing is a crucial skill, without it, we may miss important details in a conversation, have a hard time sticking with a task, fail to learn a skill, and can get easily sidetracked.
Quick word on focusing: Just because a child or adult can be focused on a video game for 10 hours at a time, does not mean this translates to other settings!
5. Working memory is the ability to hold information temporarily for immediate recall. There are two types of working memory: auditory and visual-spatial working memory. Auditory working memory is the ability to hold information that we hear (for example, listening to a story and answering questions after or following directions) and visual-spatial working memory is recalling information that we see (for example, looking at a map and then without the map, recalling where to go).
Do you know those people who always seem to forget your name or call you by another name? How about those people who have a hard time recalling where to go after being given directions?
Working memory helps individuals pay attention, boosts problem solving, needed for mental math, and assists children in becoming more fluent readers.
6. Response inhibition is the ability to control impulses and keep yourself away from doing the first thing that comes to your mind.
My son is 11 months old. I hope one day, I can let him cross the street himself, but right now he has no inhibition, he only thinks in the “here and now.” He wants to climb around and jump off of the bed 4 feet from the ground without considering the consequences. He has no response inhibition which is why a caregiver needs to be around him all the time to make sure he stays safe. As children get older, this skills grows.
Response inhibition will keep us safe (look both ways before we cross the street), keep friends (if your friend is wearing something that is not particularly flattering, inhibiting your response may serve you and your friendship or inhibiting a response on Facebook because you recognize a larger audience can see your response), and be successful in school or at work.
7. Time management is the ability to use your time effectively.
Do you know those people who are chronically late or exceedingly early (or are you one of those people)? My son is turning a year old in April; however, someone (I won’t mention names) came to our house to deliver his gift. Not one or two, but a whopping three months early! This is sometimes referred to as time blindness, which is under- or over- estimating how much time has passed, how long it will take, or how much time is left before an anticipated event. In this case, it was over-estimation.
8. Flexible thinking is the ability to shift plans or ideas given a change in conditions.
We all know the importance of flexibility. How many of you wanted to change up your routine once COVID hit? I certainly didn’t! How many of you wanted your fifth graders home all day? Flexibility is what we needed to make it through COVID.
Flexible thinking is vital for understanding different perspectives, following agreed upon rules for discussion, modifying one’s own idea as more ideas are brought to the table, and understanding the point of view of two or more individuals.
9. Self-regulation is the ability to manage one’s behavior, emotions, and thoughts in order to achieve long-term goals.
How many of you have tried eating healthy? It takes a lot of self-regulation! We need to take a pause between “feeling” that we need to eat those french fries and the “action” of eating those french fries.
Self-regulation is important for becoming an independent learner, being responsible with money, using social media safely, exercising,and managing stress..
10. Emotional self-control is the ability to manage one’s emotions to achieve positive outcomes.
Have you ever lashed out at someone because you disagreed with them? When my son was 6 months old, he “stole” a toy from his then 7-month old cousin and she hit him. For a baby that age, that is an appropriate response; however, as we get older, we have to learn to manage our emotions. We don’t expect his cousin to say “excuse me, I was playing with that” or “I’m not ready to give that toy up.” As we get older, we learn how to manage feelings appropriately.
Emotional self-control is vital for success in social situations, relationships, friendships, school, and work.
Recall the conductor example, if one of these 10 executive functioning skills are missing, it can have a big impact on the ability of the orchestra to produce the music we know they can produce.
To learn more about how you can help your child with executive functioning skills, look here.
Stay tuned in my following blog posts on the top tips and tricks to help you develop executive functioning skills!
About the author
Stephanie Jeret is a Speech-Language Pathologist and the owner of Speak with Stephanie. She obtained her Bachelor's and Master's degree from the City University of New York. She has practiced speech therapy in a number of settings including outpatient rehabilitation, telepractice, skilled nursing facilities, and schools. She specializes in the evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of a variety of communication disorders including articulation disorders, receptive/expressive language disorders and fluency disorders.