Executive function describes a set of cognitive processes and mental skills that help an individual plan, monitor, and successfully execute their goals. The “executive functions,” as they’re known, include attentional control, working memory, inhibition, and problem-solving, many of which are thought to originate in the brain’s prefrontal cortex.
Many behaviors in which humans engage, such as breathing or stepping out of the way of an oncoming car, occur without conscious thought. Most others, however, rely on executive function. Any process or goal pursuit that requires time management, decision-making, and storing information in one’s memory makes use of executive function to some degree. Since much of modern life is process-driven and demands that individuals set and meet goals, disruptions in executive function can make it challenging for someone to succeed in school, at work, or in the household.
Many experts believe that the human mind contains seven different executive functions. These include self-awareness, inhibition, nonverbal working memory (short-term memory related to sensory and spatial information), verbal working memory (short-term memory related to speech and language), emotional regulation, motivational regulation, and planning and problem-solving.
Studies have found consistent overlap between executive functioning and general intelligence scores; some researchers have even proposed that executive functioning may better predict success than does IQ across a wide array of disciplines. However, some high-IQ individuals struggle with executive functions; thus, there is clearly more to intelligence than executive functioning alone.
The executive functions start to appear in the first year of a child’s life and develop rapidly in the elementary school years. For most people, they will continue to develop into the mid-20s or even early 30s. Children and teens who lag behind their peers in executive functioning may find that they have fewer challenges once they enter adulthood.
Someone who struggles with executive functioning will likely have trouble starting or finishing tasks, executing multiple steps of a project in sequence, and keeping their belongings organized. They may struggle to make decisions or lose important items frequently.
Issues with impulse or emotional control are a less obvious sign of an executive functioning deficit. Someone with underdeveloped executive functioning may act without thinking and may appear overly emotional at times; this is because both behavioral and emotional inhibition are key aspects of executive functioning.
Executive dysfunction—sometimes called executive function disorder, or EFD—may appear similar to ADHD; indeed, some experts posit that ADHD is itself a disorder of executive function. People with ADHD—especially children—usually struggle with one or more executive functions, in addition to other symptoms such as hyperactivity and distractibility.
The term “executive function disorder,” or EFD, describes a condition in which a child or adult struggles significantly with planning, problem-solving, or other aspects of executive function. EFD is not currently an official diagnosis in the DSM-5, though executive function-related symptoms do appear in other DSM conditions.
The cause of poor executive functioning is not always clear. Like other developmental challenges such as ADHD, the cause is likely a combination of genetics, prenatal exposure to drugs or alcohol, early childhood trauma, or other factors. Sometimes, there is no discernible cause.
Someone with executive functioning challenges will find it more difficult than others in their age group to remember information, plan and execute tasks, keep items and information organized, and maintain motivation. They may also struggle with emotional, impulse, or attentional control.
No, though many experts believe the two are closely related. Though many with ADHD will struggle with one or more executive functions, the core symptoms of ADHD—hyperactivity, impulsivity, and distractibility—are not solely related to executive functioning. What’s more, executive function difficulties can co-occur with other developmental and mood disorders, including autism or depression.
Executive function disorder, or EFD, is not an official diagnosis. However, it is possible—and in fact, quite likely—for someone with ADHD to also have significant challenges with executive functioning.
Children can be disorganized because of ADHD, disobedience, or simply because they’re not interested in neatness. However, some children who wish to be organized but find it difficult may have poor executive functioning. These children may struggle with the motivation, problem-solving, and planning that are required for staying organized.
The ability to plan, problem-solve, organize, and execute can help children and adults in many domains in life. Thus, improving these skills is often a key interest for parents and adults. For some who struggle with executive function, accommodations at work or school can help fill the gaps; strategies aimed specifically at areas of weakness can also be of great help.
However, it’s important to remember that executive function is among the slowest mental processes to develop. Thus, many children who struggle with executive function may find that their skills naturally catch up over time and continue to improve well into adulthood.
Yes. Most children and teens who are behind their peers in executive function will continue to improve with time, particularly if offered specific strategies for doing so; many will catch up by the time they reach adulthood. Adults may find progress to be slower but can also improve executive functions using targeted strategies and accommodations.
Strategies for improving executive function include: breaking a larger task into smaller chunks; externalizing information using to-do lists, notepads, or phone reminders; buddying up with a peer to foster accountability; blocking access to distractions (putting one’s phone in a drawer or blocking tempting websites); and using rewards to motivate periods of consistent effort.
Many children who struggle to keep track of tasks and responsibilities find the simple act of writing them down—and thus externalizing them—to be hugely helpful. Working with the teacher if necessary, parents can help their child establish a consistent routine for writing down tasks, planning the steps for completion, and rewarding themselves when successful.
Yes. Adults should identify which specific executive functions they wish to strengthen—whether planning, problem-solving, working memory, or emotional regulation—when deciding which strategy to use. For example, adults who struggle with motivation can devise a reward system for successfully completing a task, while those who struggle with impulse control can establish consistent routines to strengthen inhibition.