9 Executive Functions and HOW TO IMPROVE THEM

What is executive functioning?

Executive function has become a common buzzword lately however, neuropsychologists have been studying these skills for many years.  Executive function can be described as the management system of the brain.  The mental skills required for executive function allow us to manage ourselves, plan, set goals, and get things done. Executive function skills are utilized every day at home, work, and school.  Executive function skills start to develop in childhood and continue to develop in the mid-’20s.

  1. Self Control or inhibitory control or impulse control
    1. Self-control addresses a child’s ability to restrain from physical or emotional outbursts.  Self-control or impulse control keeps a child from reacting without thinking.  Emotional regulation and control help a child remain cool, calm, and collected.  By having self-control a child can work through the situation instead of impulsively reacting.
    2. An example of this is when a child works through the homework instead of crinkling it up or throwing a fit.
  2. Emotional Control
    1. Emotional control is the ability to regulate emotional responses by bringing rational and reflective thoughts on feelings.
    2. An example of emotional control is when a child copes with a difficult situation instead of having an outburst.
  3. Task Initiation
    1. Task initiation is the ability to begin a task or activity.  It also relates to a child independently generating ideas, responses in conversation, and problem-solving strategies.  
    2. An example of task initiation is starting the assignment immediately after the teacher finishes the instructions.
  4. Working Memory
    1. Working memory is the child’s ability to retain and store learned information for later recall and use.  This skill is crucial for success within the classroom. 
    2. A child who has a strong working memory successfully remembers instructions that are given and is able to recall knowledge from one day to the next in order to build upon it. 
  5. Self-Monitoring
    1. Self-monitoring is the child’s ability to use self-evaluation of how well s/he is performing a specific task.  This skill allows a child to reflect and track their progress on a task, activity, or assignment.  By utilizing reflection the child is able to make adjustments in order to accomplish the task.
    2. An example of self-monitoring is a child noticing the chocolate chip cookies are very flat or the math equation isn’t working out.
  6. Flexible thinking or cognitive flexibility
    1. Flexible thinking gives a child the ability to problem solve and/or adjust to situations when necessary and overcome unplanned obstacles.  This type of thinking applies to the child’s ability to see situations from a different perspective.  
    2. A child who exhibits flexible thinking isn’t stumped by everyday hurdles or a difference in opinion from a peer or adult.
    3. An example of flexible thinking is when the school lunch menu says pizza on Mondays but instead, the school is serving mac and cheese.  
  7. Organization of materials
    1. Organization skills address the ability to create order in school, storage spaces, work, and play.  
    2. An example of strong organizational skills would be having a designated colored folder for each class; Blue for math, Red for Reading, yellow for science.
  8. Planning 
    1. Planning is the ability of a child to think about the future, create a plan of action and prioritize the different working parts.  Throughout the day it is important to plan how to accomplish tasks and determine which aspects of the task are most important and in what order to complete them.
    2. Examples of this include packing a backpack and giving directions.  
  9. Time management
    1. Time management relates to the child’s ability to properly organize a schedule and complete tasks on time.  Time management is important throughout everyday tasks as it allows the child to jump from task to task, punctuality, and goal setting.
    2. An example of time management is completing a multi-step project prior to the deadline. We view this as not procrastinating.

What is executive functioning responsible for?

  • Paying attention and focus
  • Self-monitoring
  • Analyzing information
  • Understanding different viewpoints
  • Initiating tasks
  • Regulating emotions
  • Managing behavior
  • Staying focused on the task through completion
  • Organizing, planning, and prioritizing
  • Remembering important details

Executive functioning plays a critical role in an individual’s ability to function throughout the day.  When there are problems with these skills individuals may struggle with all areas of life including school, work, play, and relationships.

What are the signs of executive function difficulties?

  • Having trouble starting and/or completing tasks
  • Having difficulty prioritizing tasks
  • Forgetting what they just heard
  • Managing Frustrations
  • Difficulty following directions
  • Panic or worry when rules and routines change
  • Time management difficulties
  • Organizing activities
  • Difficulty keeping track of personal belongings
  • Trouble organizing their thoughts
  • Overly emotional and fixate on things

How can you improve executive function?

  • Attend social skills classes
  • Break up large tasks into small steps
  • Practice Mindfulness
  • Use visual aids to help process and understanding information
  • Write down due dates and appointments in a calendar
  • Color coordinate folders and notebooks for classes
  • Create a checklist (written or visual)
  • Allow time for transitioning between activities
  • Make a schedule (visual or written) to help stay on track
  • Decrease stress
  • Get Exercise and move
  • Play Games 
    • Soduku works on working memory
    • Cribbage works on attention and working memory
    • Chess works on planning and flexibility
    • Jenga works on attention and flexibility and self-control
    • Brainteasers work on flexibility
    • Freeze games work attention and self-control
    • Candyland works on attention and flexibility
    • Scrabble works on planning and organization
    • Pictionary work on time management and flexibility
    • Uno works on flexibility and attention


Cooper-Kahn, J. & Dietzel, L. What is Executivwe Functioning?  Retrieved from: http://www.ldonline.org/article/29122/ 

Zelazo, P. D. What is Executive Function? Retrieved from: https://www.understood.org/en/learning-thinking-differences/child-learning-disabilities/executive-functioning-issues/what-is-executive-function 


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