Understanding Executive Functioning

Understanding Executive Functioning

Executive Function refers to a set of cognitive processes and skills that help us plan, monitor, and successfully execute our goals. Think of executive function as the “management” system of the brain. We use these skills every day to manage daily activities, learn and work.

Essentially, these are the skills that help us get things done.

There are several primary types of executive functions. While each plays their own important role, they also work together to monitor and facilitate certain goal-directed behaviors.

The main areas of executive function are:

  • Attentional Control: This includes our ability to focus attention and concentrate on something specific.
  • Cognitive Flexibility: This assists us in switching from one mental task to another or to think about multiple things at once.
  • Cognitive Inhibition: This allows us to tune out unnecessary information.
  • Inhibitory Control: This is our ability to control our impulses or desires so our behaviors are appropriate and beneficial.
  • Working Memory: Refers to the brains ability to hold several facts or thoughts while solving a problem or performing another task.

These functions play a large role in many areas of life. Executive function skills help us to:

  • Pay attention
  • Organize, plan and prioritize
  • Start tasks and stay focused on them until completion
  • Understand different points of view
  • Regulate emotions
  • Self-monitor

Difficulties with executive function can affect people in a variety of ways. People struggling with executive function skills may have trouble starting or finishing tasks, completing a task that has multiple steps, and keeping track of belongings. Executive dysfunction is also related to difficulties with controlling impulses and regulating emotions.

Fortunately, there are many ways to strengthen and improve upon these skills. The first step is to undergo testing such a neuropsychological evaluation which can help pinpoint areas of difficulty. There are a variety of ways to treat executive dysfunction. Those who struggle with executive function skills benefit from making to-do lists, breaking large tasks into smaller chunks, utilizing calendars and phone reminders, utilizing accountability partners, and creating reward systems. Eliminating any distractions is hugely important and can be as simple as putting one’s phone in another room or blocking certain websites or apps during periods of work or study.

Parents can help their children establish a consistent routine for writing down tasks, planning out steps for completion of tasks, and rewards for consistent effort.

Individual therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy can be helpful in managing thoughts and behaviors that surround these skills. School services can be utilized to help students improve social skills and better control behaviors. Lastly, hiring an executive function coach or tutor can help adolescents and adults improve organizational and time management skills.

While executive function deficits can be frustrating, the good news is these skills can be improved. Research supports that practice is the best way to strengthen these skills. Luckily, real life gives us plenty of opportunity to practice these skills!

Authored by:  Jennifer Jamgochian, LMSW