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Executive Function

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

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.

Understanding Executive Function

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.

What are the different executive functions?

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. 

Is executive functioning related to intelligence?

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.

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Problems with Executive Function

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.

What is executive function disorder (EFD)?

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.

What causes poor executive functioning?

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.

How to Improve Executive Function

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.

Is it possible for executive function to be improved?

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. 

What strategies can help strengthen executive function?

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.

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