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What is the science behind executive function? (2023)

Updated: Mar 23, 2023


This is an image of research materials

While there is a lot of talk about how important executive function skills are, what does the research tell us?


In this article, I will look at the most cited research articles on executive functioning to identify key themes and patterns.


The Holy Grail of all studies done on executive function skills is Dr. Adele Diamond's 2012 study, "Executive Functions," a systematic mega-review of executive function interventions.


This was one of is the first to review all the different ways that people have tried to improve EFs. Since then, Dr. Diamond has continued to publish more research on her website, the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Lab of Adele Diamond.


Combing through the research, the most important facts that emerge from research on executive functioning are the following:



Read below to see more details on each of these facts and the studies from which these groundbreaking truths emerge.


This is visual that includes the main scientific findings discovered about executive functions
Scientific findings about executive functions


1. Stress impairs the executive functions

Though stress is inevitable in life, it is important to understand how it impacts executive function skills. ADHD symptoms may increase when stress is involved.


See our article about how to conquer stress and improve executive functions.

Even extremely mild social evaluative stress (worrying about what others might think of you or your performance) impairs the executive functions of most people.

Source: Shahab Zareyan, Haolu Zhang, Juelu Wang, Weihong Song, Elizabeth Hampson, David Abbott, Adele Diamond, First Demonstration of Double Dissociation between COMT-Met158 and COMT-Val158Cognitive Performance When Stressed and When Calmer, Cerebral Cortex, Volume 31, Issue 3, March 2021, Pages 1411–1426, https://doi.org/10.1093/cercor/bhaa276


2. Mindful movement practices are the BEST thing for executive functions

Mindfulness practices all share characteristics of quieting the mind and body which minimizes internal and external distractions so that one stays present and attentive to individual senses and thoughts.


In an extensive study comparing the benefits of practices that impact executive function, mindfulness practices were shown to increase executive function.


We found that mindful movement practices, e.g., taekwondo & t’ai chi, show the best results for improving EFs.

Source: Diamond, A. & Ling, D. S. (2019). Review of the evidence on, and fundamental questions about, efforts to improve executive functions, including working memory. In J. Novick, M.F. Bunting, M.R. Dougherty & R. W. Engle (Eds.), Cognitive and working memory training: Perspectives from psychology, neuroscience, and human development, (pp.143-431). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Image of all the different theories and success rates of interventions done to improve executive function skills
Mindful movement practices have the greatest impact on improving executive function skills!

This is a visual with the saying "mindful movement is the best way to improve executive functions"

3. Computerized cognitive training programs show limited evidence of helping develop executive function skills (even though they claim lots of benefits)

Cognitive training programs were always outperformed by mindful movement and school programs promoting executive function skills, with computerized cognitive training programs showing fewer results than non-computerized cognitive training.


Source: Diamond, A. & Ling, D. S. (2019). Review of the evidence on, and fundamental questions about, efforts to improve executive functions, including working memory. In J. Novick, M.F. Bunting, M.R. Dougherty & R. W. Engle (Eds.), Cognitive and working memory training: Perspectives from psychology, neuroscience, and human development, (pp.143-431). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.



4. ADHD is the single greatest negative impactor on school achievement


John Hattie's ground-breaking study “Visible Learning," ranked 138 influences that are related to learning outcomes from very positive effects to very negative effects.


The average effect, across all the studies he's analyzed, was 0.4. standard deviations. This average also happens to translate — roughly — to the amount of progress a student can be expected to make in one year of school.


In his study, John Hattie found that ADHD has a -.90 effect size.


This means for students with ADHD is that they can expect to lag more than two years behind their neurotypical peers!


John Hattie updated his list of 138 effects to 150 effects in Visible Learning for Teachers (2011), and more recently to a list of 195 effects in The Applicability of Visible Learning to Higher Education (2015).


His research is now based on nearly 1200 meta-analyses – up from 800 when Visible Learning came out in 2009.


List of all factors related to student learning from John Hattie's groundbreaking study
ADHD has the greatest negative impact on student achievement of all factors



5. Executive function skills (especially working memory) predict academic success

For the subjects of language and mathematics, the results of the random effects model were similar and slightly higher for mathematics (r = 0.350; r = 0.365). Thus, the theory that executive functions have greater influence on mathematical performance is supported, especially in aspects such as coding, organization, and the immediate retrieval of information.

Source: Cortés Pascual A, Moyano Muñoz N and Quílez Robres A (2019) The Relationship Between Executive Functions and Academic Performance in Primary Education: Review and Meta-Analysis. Front. Psychol. 10:1582. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01582


6. Better executive function skills lead to improved quality of life

Improvements in executive function correlate with enhanced performance and functioning and health-related quality of life: evidence from 2 large, double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trials in ADHD

This is a colorful image with words that describes the benefits of mindfulness


7. EFs are more important for school readiness than are IQ or entry-level reading or math


...in one hundred and forty-one 3- to 5-year-old children from low-income homes...Results indicated that the various aspects of child self-regulation accounted for unique variance in the academic outcomes independent of general intelligence and that the inhibitory control aspect of executive function was a prominent correlate of both early math and reading ability.
Findings suggest that curricula designed to improve self-regulation skills as well as enhance early academic abilities may be most effective in helping children succeed in school.

Executive function coaching can help:

Current research clearly shows the importance of executive function skills on academic success and quality of life. If you are struggling with ADHD, school challenges due to executive function deficits can be significant.


In addition to combating stress and adopting a mindfulness practice based in movement, an executive function coach can help!


An Executive Functioning coach can provide personalized guidance, support and practical solutions tailored specifically to your individual needs - all designed to help propel you forward in education and life.


From developing better self-regulation tools, to identifying effective study habits — working with an executive function coach can make all the difference!


See our article to learn more in the definitive guide to executive function coaching and visit our website to book a consultation https://www.efspecialists.com.


Conclusion

Research shows that combating stress and adopting a mindfulness practice based in movement will help executive functions. Cognitive training programs have limited effectiveness, particularly those that are computer-based.


Scientific evidence suggests that stress and ADHD have the biggest effect on executive function skills.


Just in case you needed more evidence to trust the source of most of this research (Dr. Adele Diamond), check out this clip of Dr. Adele Diamond teaching the Dalai Lama about executive function skills:


About the author

Sean G. McCormick is the founder of Executive Function Specialists, an online coaching business that 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.


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


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

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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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