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What are executive functioning skills?

Updated: Apr 25


executive functioning skills

Can you imagine going to an airport without an air traffic controller?


It would be BIG trouble.


In fact, it wouldn't even be possible for planes from different parts of the world to coordinate with each other in a safe and effective manner without the guidance of a skilled air traffic controller.


Your executive function is the air traffic controller in your brain.


It allows vital tasks like eating, sleeping and breathing to operate automatically, while selectively admitting other priorities and pleasures to own your attention.

But when the executive function is impaired, or executive functioning skills are underdeveloped, your internal airport can be chaotic.


To make it easy on your executive function, I’ve come up with the acronym P.O.S.I.T.I.V.E. to help you remember what executive function skills are most essential for your middle, high school or college student.


Table of Contents

What are the executive functions?

How are executive functioning skills measured?

So what are executive functioning skills?

Who has trouble developing EF skills?

How can I help my child develop these skills?

How can executive functioning coaching help?

Do adults need help with executive functioning?

Conclusion

About the author


What are the executive functions?

The executive functions are are a set of processes that are required for managing behaviors.


Like the example of the air traffic controller above, the executive functions work together to allow us to attain selected goals, even while the external conditions of our environment challenge and distract us.


Executive function involves working memory, inhibitory control, cognitive inhibition, attentional control, and cognitive flexibility. Let's quickly define those:

  • Working memory is your brain-based system that allows for a limited amount of information to be held in mind and used to execute cognitive tasks. Using a computer as an analogy, think of working memory as the "copy/paste" function on your computer, while long term memory is everything stored in your hard drive.

  • Inhibitory control regulate our urges by slowing our impulse to act, while leveraging logic and attention to respond in an appropriate manner. Think "respond" rather than "react".

  • Cognitive inhibition is our mental ability to ignore stimuli that are unrelated to a prioritized objective. Something dogs are not good at doing.

  • Attentional control is our ability (or lack thereof) to concentrate.

  • Cognitive flexibility, also known as mental flexibility, can help us adjust our thinking and perception in relation to the environment and conditions around it, rather than holding rigid patterns of belief. A lack of cognitive flexibility is often most apparent in individuals with autism.

These cognitive processes are mainly housed in the front lobe (aka, the new kid on the block in terms of brain development). The frontal lobe is what makes us uniquely human in that it allows us to visualize and plan for a reality that does not currently exist.


Without the frontal lobe, it would be a struggle to plan for major transitions such as:

  • Finding a college

  • Living independently

  • Choosing a career

  • Getting married

  • Planning for retirement

Executive function skills develop and grow over our life span and can be improved at any time through practice and repetition of research-based strategies (conversely, they can also be impaired at any time).


How are executive functioning skills measured?

To measure executive function abilities, neuropsychological tests such as the Stroop test and rating scales like the Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Functions (BRIEF) are used. These tests can be administered by a neuropsychologist or school psychologist, as part of a larger battery of tests used to measure a range of cognitive skills.


If you want to evaluate your own executive functioning skills or those of your children, you can use Peg Dawson's and Richard Guare's free inventory which can be found here.


Now that you know what the executive functions are, it's time to explore what different executive functioning skills there are and how they allow us to complete tasks, manage responsibilities, and play well with others.


So what are executive functioning skills?

An easy way to remember key executive function skills is to use the P.O.S.I.T.I.V.E. acronym:


Planning

Organization

Self (management, awareness, regulation, control, advocacy)

Initiation

Time management

Inhibition

Vision and goal setting

Evaluating priorities


Executive functions play a critical role in managing both day to day tasks, emotional control, as well as planning into the future.


Let's go through each of those areas in the P.O.S.I.T.I.V.E. acronym to explore how they impacts a student's everyday life.


Planning skills include:

  • Choosing when to focus on homework assignments

  • Picking out a college based on career goals

  • Coordinating with teachers to get additional assistance

  • Registering early for classes

Organization skills include:

  • Having materials organized (both physical and digital)

  • Keeping track of key items (backpack, keys, phone) in places that can be easily retrieved

  • Arranging information in coherent structures (essays & presentations)

Self (management, awareness, regulation, control, advocacy)

Initiation skills include:

  • The ability to begin a challenging task

  • Pressing "send" on an email

  • Speaking to a teacher about a question or concern

Time management skills include:

  • Planning in time for travel

  • Turning in homework at expected deadlines

  • Accurately estimating time spans for tasks, assignments and projects

Inhibition skills include:

  • Doing what is needed to be done (not what is easy)

  • Putting down Youtube to work on homework

  • Staying home to do homework (even when there is a party you could attend)

Vision and goal setting

  • Imagining what life could look like in 2, 5 or 10 years

  • Writing out goals

  • Refining one's vision over time

Evaluating priorities

  • Considering all options of how to spend time, then choosing tasks and activities most aligned with larger vision

  • Considering the impact of one course of action over another

  • Asking for feedback from trusted advisors or teachers on a chosen process

  • Using flexible thinking to adjust one's approach

As you can imagine, the stronger one's executive functioning skills are, the more options and opportunities they will have throughout life.


Without them, we are in trouble of living an erratic existence that is swept away by day to day needs, rather than a long-term vision.


Who has trouble developing EF skills?

A lack of EF skills can often have negative mental health repercussions, so it is important to consider how kids with ADHD will acquire these skills as part of their education.


School is essentially one big executive function experience. Switching between subjects, locations and teachers demand SO much of the executive functions, and for kids with ADHD, they often get cognitively overwhelmed and emotionally exhausted.


Kids with ADHD often have difficulty with:

  • Remembering to complete tasks

  • Managing their school portals

  • Submitting assignments

  • Regulating their emotions (emotional control)

  • Remembering required materials for class

  • Refraining from blurting out

  • Stay engaged (or awake) when bored

  • Following directions

  • Problem solving with peers

  • Self monitoring progress toward goals

  • Flexible thinking

This explains why they often have trouble with self regulation -- when the demands outweigh the capacity to manage, kids are bound display behaviors that are undesirable.


Research shows that ADHD has the greatest negative impact on school outcomes, which is why learning strategies to address EF deficits in young kids is so critical.


Other related disabilities that impact EF skills include:

  • Autism

  • Traumatic brain injury

  • Addiction issues

  • Central nervous system disorders

Because of all the challenges related having an executive function impairment, many kids also lack self control because of the repeated experience of failure. This makes learning strategies for regulating behaviors and addressing deficits very important.


How can I help my child develop these skills?

One thing to remember is that EF skills are just that -- skills.


Skills can be taught so it's important for parents to not lose hope when "D"s and "F"s appear on the report card and the missing assignments seem endless.


The first thing you can do to help your kid develop these skills is to stop doing everything for them. Let them struggle a little bit and offer support and guidance without doing things for them.


Every day there are endless opportunities to strengthen their cognitive skills. Here are just a few examples...


If they are doing homework, you can enhance their self monitoring skills by asking questions like:

  • What task do you think you do next?

  • How do you know that?

  • Where do you think you could confirm you are correct?

  • What happens when you Google that?

Or, if you are planning a trip or an activity, involve them!

Use open ended questions like:

  • What would you like to do on this trip?

  • What would you like for dinner?

Instead of organizing their room for them, use open ended questions to guide them through a process of organizing:

  • Where do you think these books should go?

  • How can organize your clothes?

Teach them how do daily living activities such as:

  • Folding laundry

  • Washing dishes

  • Washing laundry

  • Cleaning up their areas

  • Making their bed

  • Buying groceries

If they are struggling with self regulation, ask questions like:

  • How are you feeling right now?

  • Where do you feel that emotion in your body?

Learning the skills with the guidance of a helpful and experienced adult will make the transition to adulthood much more manageable. This is known as challenging them to grow within their zone of proximal development.


Another way to develop EF skills is through play and rhythmic movement. When students engage in role-playing games or board games (chess, Dungeons & Dragons, Monopoly) they learn many skills that can be transferable to school such as:

  • Problem solving

  • Weighing options

  • Flexible thinking

  • Emotional control

  • Accounting for resources

Developing executive function skills involves support from parents, teachers, coaches, therapists and other professionals and you can always start early. For example, in the morning, I have my 3 year old daughter help me clear the table, prepare her lunch, and put away dishes and silverware.


When parenting, instead of using "always" and "never" statements to describe your child, ask yourself, "What skill do they need to learn?"


Give them very specific directions like, "Open up your computer and begin writing your outline for your essay on gothic literature," rather than saying, "Do your homework."


Additionally, understanding how patterns of development are different for children with ADHD is important.


Young people with ADHD often lag behind their peers in emotional control, making it more difficult to manage social relationships.


They may be more likely to engage in patterns of behavior that get them in trouble.


Consider all these factors and avoid nagging, exploding or begging, but rather showing up as firm, no-nonsense nurturer in their lives. It may help to join an ADHD Parent Support Group to connect with other parents who are working on the same things.


How can executive functioning coaching help?

You can also find your child an executive function coach to support the development of these skills.


When looking for a coach, use this guide to ask the right questions to make sure you find a coach that is a good match for your families needs. This guide will answer commonly asked questions like:

  • Where can I find a coach?

  • How much does an executive function coach cost?

Executive function coaches can:

  • Teach them how to navigate school portals

  • Write emails to their teachers

  • Use Google calendar

  • Apply for jobs

  • Break down large assignments into manageable chunks

  • Learn how to request accommodations

  • Write an outline for an essay

  • Apply to college

To learn more about working with an executive function coach, you can also ask your pediatric doctor, child psychologist, or local therapist for recommendations.


If you are interested in becoming an executive function coach, visit this page to learn more.


Do adults need help with executive functioning?

While children and students benefit from improving their EF skills, adults can also benefit from working on their executive function skills.


Many adults struggle with the same things students do which include:

  • Finding a career match

  • Future planning

  • Regulating challenging emotions

  • Stress management

  • Raising children

  • Having an organization plan for work or home life

  • Difficulty with planning free time

Adults can benefit from executive function coaching by learning how to:

  • Track and respond to emails

  • Communicate their needs to their colleagues and superiors

  • Break large projets into manageable chunks

  • Manage challenging emotions

  • Focus for extended periods of time

Many work places will provide accommodations for adults with ADHD to work with a coach if ADHD is impacting one's ability to complete work.


Check with your HR representative if you feel this is the case and see what your company offers.


To learn more about how executive function coaching can help in the workplace, visit this page.


Conclusion

What EF skills do your struggle with?


What did you learn here today that you didn't know?


Let me know if the comments below! I respond to every comment.


About the author

Sean G. McCormick is a parent, husband and international executive function coach.


He is the founder of Executive Function Specialists, an online coaching business which guides middle, high school, and college students in overcoming procrastination, disorganization and anxiety by teaching time management, prioritization and communication skills so they feel motivated, prepared, and empowered.


Sean also founded the Executive Function Coaching Academy which trains special education teachers, school psychologists and other professionals in learning how to support students with ADHD and executive function challenges.


He has also spoken about executive function at prominent venues including the Association of Educational Therapists' National Conference (2021), The Executive Function Online Summit (TEFOS 2022) and at the San Francisco and Marin County Psychological Associations.


Sean is regularly featured across media channels for his expertise on executive function, ADHD and special education.

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Executive Functions, Inc. is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. Some of the links in this post may be Amazon.com affiliate links, which means if you make a purchase, Executive Functions, Inc. will earn a commission. However, we only promote products we actually use or those which have been vetted by the greater community of families and professionals who support individuals with diverse learning needs.


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About 👋

EFS started with one teacher deciding that kids with ADHD needed better access to quality executive function coaching services. Since then, we have grown to a team of specialists working both private students and public schools to enhance executive function skills for all students. 

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