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;

Executive Function:Brain’s Control Centre

Executive Functions: Why They Are Skills for a Lifetime

How to support a friend going through a hard time

‘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!

Hear from Adele diamond about how can you can improve executive functions. 

Turning Some Ideas on Their Head- Adele Diamond TEDxWestVancouverED

Coaching 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 for Parents

  • 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