What is Executive Function?

What is executive function? Think of it as the brain’s higher command centre. It is the area of the brain that filters incoming stimuli, assesses the situation at hand, coordinates and regulates the brain and body’s responses, and is involved in planning the appropriate course of action. We can all struggle with executive function at one time or another, especially if we are tired, stressed, ill or depressed. The seat of the brain’s executive functions is the frontal lobe, more specifically the prefrontal cortex, the area at the front of the brain.

Joyce Cooper-Kahn and Laurie Dietzel, in their 2008 article for LDOnline, define executive functions as “a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation.”

Chris Chandler, author of ‘The Science of ADHD‘, tells us that “Executive functions are involved in (1) the identification of what we want/need to do/achieve; (2) how we are going to go about achieving the objective; (3) arranging these objectives into a sequence of actions according to the plan; and (4) monitoring performance and correcting mistakes or changing plans when the evidence suggests a plan is faulty.”

He also states that we are not born with fully developed executive functions, these develop throughout childhood, and are not completely mature until around age 25.

Children with impaired or delayed executive function may have difficulties with planning and organisation, thinking ahead, controlling their emotions and impulses, paying attention, persistence and working memory.

Dr Thomas Brown has developed a model of executive function. He divides executive function into 6 areas or ‘clusters’:

Activation: This includes organising tasks and materials, estimating time, prioritising tasks and getting started on tasks
Focus: focusing, sustaining focus and shifting focus to tasks
Effort: regulating alertness, sustaining effort and processing speed
Emotion: managing frustration and modulating emotions
Memory: utilising working memory and accessing recall
Action: monitoring and regulating self action. Impulse control.

These areas can overlap and influence each other. It is now believed that executive function and impulse control are more important than IQ for success at school.

Dr. Martha Denckla, Director of the Developmental Cognitive Neurology Clinic at the Kennedy Kreiger Institute, describes executive function dysfunction as affecting one’s ability to Initiate, Sustain, Inhibit, Shift.

For further reading also see strugglingteens.com


2 thoughts on “What is Executive Function?

  1. Pingback: Attention difficulties in ADHD | Engage

  2. Pingback: Sue Larkey’s Tips for Executive Function | Engage

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