What are executive functions?

Executive functions are a family of top-down[1] 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[2].

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[3].

  • 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[4]. 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

Below are some useful video overviews of what executive functions are;

Adults and Adolescents

Executive Function:Brain’s Control Centre

Executive Functions: Why They Are Skills for a Lifetime


‘The Adventures of You’ executive function guide – Part 1: You, there! Adventurer!

‘The Adventures of You’ executive function guide – Part 2: A brainful of lasers!


Watch cognitive psychologist Adele Diamond’s TED talk about how executive functions can be strengthened

How we can help.

Please contact us for more information about how we can help  improve their executive function skills.

Email: info@connectionsinmind.co.uk or call: 0208 050 1605

[1] 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

[2] Diamond, A. (2013). Executive functions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 135–168. http://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-113011-143750

[3] 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

[4] Executive Function & Self-Regulation. (n.d.). Retrieved 31 August 2016, from http://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/executive-function/

Further Reading

  • Smart but Scattered Teens: The “Executive Skills” Program for Helping Teens Reach Their Potential by Richard Guare, Peg Dawson and Colin Guare Published by Guilford Press
  • Smart but Scattered: The Revolutionary “Executive Skills” Approach to Helping Kids Reach Their Potential by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare Published by Guilford Press