What is executive function?

Executive function is a set of mental skills. It includes working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. We use these skills every day to learn, work, and manage daily life. Trouble with executive function can make it hard to focus, follow directions, and handle emotions, among other things.

Snapshot: What executive function is

Some people describe executive function as “the management system of the brain.” That’s because the skills involved let us set goals, plan, and get things done. When people struggle with executive function, it impacts them in all areas of life.

There are three main areas of executive function. They are:

  1. Working memory

  2. Cognitive flexibility (also called flexible thinking)

  3. Inhibitory control (which includes self-control)

Executive function is responsible for many skills, including:

  • Paying attention

  • Organizing, planning, and prioritizing

  • Starting tasks and staying focused on them to completion

  • Understanding different points of view

  • Regulating emotions

  • Self-monitoring (keeping track of what you’re doing)

Executive function skills usually develop quickly in early childhood and into the teen years. But they keep developing into the mid 20s.

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Signs of executive function challenges

Trouble with executive function can affect people in different ways. The difficulties often look like the signs of ADHD. That’s because ADHD is a problem with executive function.

People struggling with executive skills may:

  • Have trouble starting and/or completing tasks

  • Have difficulty prioritizing tasks

  • Forget what they just heard or read

  • Have trouble following directions or a sequence of steps

  • Panic when rules or routines change

  • Have trouble switching focus from one task to another

  • Get overly emotional and fixate on things

  • Have trouble organizing their thoughts

  • Have trouble keeping track of their belongings

  • Have trouble managing their time

Trouble with executive function isn’t a diagnosis or a learning disability. But it’s common in people who learn and think differently. Everyone with ADHD has trouble with it. And lots of people with learning challenges struggle with executive function, too.

These difficulties can cause trouble with learning. But they don’t mean that people are lazy or not intelligent. People who struggle with executive function are just as smart as other people. And they work just as hard.

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Possible causes of executive function challenges

There’s been a lot of research into what causes trouble with executive function and ADHD. Here are two main factors.

1. Differences in brain development. Researchers have looked at executive function in the brain. They’ve found that certain areas of the brain develop more slowly in people who struggle with executive skills. These areas are responsible for working memory and emotional control.

2. Genes and heredity. People who have trouble with executive function often have family members who do, too.

Also, trouble with executive function often occurs with learning challenges.

Learning disabilities don’t always involve a problem with executive function. But it’s not uncommon for people with or , for example, to also have difficulty with executive skills. Learn how problems with executive function can impact reading and math.

Slow processing speed isn’t itself a problem with executive function. But it can still cause trouble with it. Learn more about slow processing speed.

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Diagnosing and treating executive function challenges

There’s no diagnosis called executive function disorder. But there are specific tests that look at a wide range of executive skills. These skills include:

  • Attention

  • Inhibitory control

  • Working memory

  • Organization and planning

  • Concept formation

  • Set shifting (the ability to shift from one task to another)

  • Word and idea generation

Testing should be done as part of a full evaluation that looks at many areas of learning and thinking. These evaluations are often done by psychologists. (Schools do free evaluations for kids.) But other types of professionals do this type of testing, too.

Some of these same professionals offer treatments and approaches like:

Behavior therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Behavior therapy helps people replace negative behaviors with positive ones. CBT helps people deal with thoughts and feelings and manage behavior.

Medications. There are no medications just for executive function, but there are medications for ADHD.

School services for kids. School psychologists can work with kids to come up with strategies to help with social skills and behavior management. Special education teachers may work with kids to build academic, social, and organization skills. They may also work on strategies for managing behavior.

Organizational coaching. These are consultants you can hire. They’re not tutors who help build academic skills. Instead, they work on building organization and time management skills. They can also work on study skills with kids. Learn more about organizational coaches.

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Key takeaways

  • You can think of executive function as “the management system of the brain.”

  • It includes skills like self-control, organization, and flexible thinking.

  • People with ADHD struggle with executive function.


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