Executive Function 101


Are you like many parents and find yourself fighting with your child about completing their homework?  Finishing their chores?  Finding their water bottle which has been left behind for the tenth time?  If so, you are not alone.  Executive Function has become a buzzword in schools and psychology offices and increasingly identified as being a significant contributor to children’s ability to succeed in school and navigate through the world independently and efficiently.   Despite this, executive function processes are not always taught systematically in school and are not a focus of the curriculum.  Furthermore, classroom instruction generally focuses on the content, or the what, rather than the process, or the how, of learning and does not systematically address metacognitive strategies that teach students to think about how they think and learn.  While some kids have the natural capacity for using executive function skills, others have more difficulty and require explicit instruction.

What are the Executive Functions?

Executive Functions represent an umbrella construct for a collection of interrelated skills responsible for purposeful, goal-directed, problem-solving behavior.  A useful metaphor is thinking of the brain as the “orchestra” and the executive functions as the “conductor.”  Executive functioning skills enable children and adults to successfully perform such activities as planning, organizing, paying attention to and remembering details, goal-directed persistence, and time management, to name a few.  Notably, these emerging skills can be observed in infants/toddlers and continue to develop through young adulthood.  While executive functioning deficits have been identified in youth with a range of neuropsychological and psychiatric challenges (e.g., ADHD, Learning Disabilities, Anxiety, Depression), other children may not have a disability but still suffer from executive functioning deficits.

Researchers in the field of psychology have identified a list of executive function skills and each one helps a child or adolescent successfully complete certain daily activities.  In addition, areas of weakness in these skills or “executive dysfunction” has been shown to affect a child’s ability to function successfully at home or in school.  For example, a child or adolescent who is having a hard time starting homework assignments or is consistently putting off projects until the last minute may be viewed as lazy or unmotivated.  However, this child may be struggling with an executive functioning skill deficit known as task initiation, or the ability to recognize when it is time to get started on something and begin the task without undue procrastination.

The following is list of executive function skills, their definition, and examples of what the skill looks like in children and adolescents.


Inhibition- The ability to stop one’s own behavior, actions, or thoughts at the appropriate time.
Example:  A child can wait a short time without being disruptive.


Flexibilty/Shift -The ability to move freely from one situation to another and respond appropriately.

Example:  This child is able to adjust when a familiar routine is disrupted or a task becomes too complicated.


Emotional Control -The ability to manage emotions to achieve goals, complete tasks, or direct behavior.

Example: A teenager can manage the anxiety before a game or test and still perform.


Task Initiation -The ability to begin tasks in a timely manner.

Example:  A teenager does not wait until the last minute to begin a project.


Working Memory -The ability to hold information in memory while completing a task.

Example:  A child is able to hold in mind and follow two or three step directions.


Organization – The ability to impose order on work, play, and storage spaces.

Example:  A teenager can organize and locate sports equipment.


Planning/Prioritization -The ability to create a road map to reach a goal or complete a task.

Example:  A child can think of options to settle a peer conflict or a teen can formulate a plan to get a job.


Self-Monitoring – The ability to monitor one’s own performance and observe how you problem solve.

Example:  A young child can change a behavior in response to feedback from an adult.


Interventions to Improve Executive Function Skills:

We know that executive functioning skills can improve with appropriate coaching and supports.

At the Portsmouth Neuropsychology Center, we offer Executive Functioning Coaching services.   Gianna Alden, MA, executive function coach, consults with children, adolescents, and young adults.  Such services include an initial intake meeting, gathering important information about your child’s skill sets including areas of strength and relative challenges, and an individualized intervention plan.  Please contact our office to schedule a consultation.


Helpful Resources:


What is Executive Functioning?


Executive Function Fact Sheet


10 Fun Activities That Teach Executive Functioning


Executive Function E-Book


Smart but Scattered ~Peg Dawson and Richard Guare