What are executive functions?
Executive functions are a family of top-down mental processes that make possible mentally playing with ideas; approaching unanticipated challenges with flexibility; taking the time to think before acting; resisting temptations, and staying focused.
Executive functions are interrelated, and they depend on a neural circuit in which the prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain plays a prominent role. The core executive functions include.
- Inhibitory and interference control – self-control, selective attention, cognitive inhibition, resisting temptations and resisting acting impulsively
- Working memory – Our mental workspace that controls our ability to retain and manipulate pieces of information over short periods of time
- Cognitive flexibility – thinking “outside the box”, seeing things from different perspectives, and quickly and flexibly adapting to changed circumstances.
Individuals are not born with all of these skills; rather they develop over a person’s life on average reaching full maturity in their mid-twenties. The development of executive skills is crucial for learning, development, positive behaviour and good decision making. They are foundational skills for later life and work.
Individuals who have executive function challenges might find everyday tasks challenging such as:
- Keeping track of time
- Conceptualising how long a task will take
- Making plans
- Getting started on a task
- Staying focused during a task
Which Students Benefit from Support to Develop Executive Function Skills?
The answer to this question is simple – all students. We all have executive functions that don’t fully stop developing until our mid twenties. Childhood and adolescence presents an opportunity to embed strong skills early on. However different children need more support than others.
All students can benefit from understanding about executive skills, how their brains work, how it affects their learning and behaviour and how they can use this information to revise, complete homework and manage everyday life. There are some groups of students though for whom more intensive support to develop good executive skills can be really beneficial.
These children and young people with executive skills challenges are often bright and able, but just can’t manage their daily lives. These children are often seen as lazy and unmotivated and adults become increasingly frustrated by their apparent difficulty in doing the ‘basic things’ in life. Problems with task initiation, time management, planning and organisation, shifting and task monitoring can have a significant impact both academically and behaviourally. The result can be a young person who is isolated from adults around them and achieving well below their potential in school.
There is also a well established link between poverty and executive function deficits, which can translate into students experiencing the challenges described above and also displaying behavioural issues linked to the executive function, inhibitory control. Therefore, children from low socio-economic status backgrounds can benefit from additional support to strengthen their executive function skills.
Below are some useful video overviews of what executive functions are;
Adults and Adolescents
Watch cognitive psychologist Adele Diamond’s TED talk about how executive functions can be strengthened
 Diamond, A. (2012). Activities and Programs That Improve Children’s Executive Functions. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(5), 335–341. http://doi.org/10.1177/0963721412453722
 Diamond, A. (2013). Executive functions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 135–168. http://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-113011-143750
 Miyake, A., Friedman, N. P., Emerson, M. J., Witzki, A. H., Howerter, A., & Wager, T. D. (2000). The unity and diversity of executive functions and their contributions to complex ‘Frontal Lobe’ tasks: a latent variable analysis. Cognitive Psychology, 41(1), 49–100. http://doi.org/10.1006/cogp.1999.0734
 Executive Function & Self-Regulation. (n.d.). Retrieved 31 August 2016, from http://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/executive-function/