What Is Executive Function?
Executive function describes a set of cognitive processes and mental skills that help an individual plan, monitor, and successfully execute their goals. These 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 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. For children and adults who struggle with executive function, accommodations at work or school can help fill the gaps.
However, it’s important to remember that executive function is among the slowest mental processes to develop. Thus, many children and teens who struggle with executive function may find that their skills catch up over time and continue to improve well into adulthood.
What Are the Signs of Poor 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 may appear similar to ADHD; indeed, some experts posit that ADHD is 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.