Executive functions – What are they?

Executive function brain imageExecutive functions and executive functioning are terms that have only recently begun to be understood and talked about.

Executive functioning refers to the higher level thinking skills that control and regulate the other thinking (cognitive) skills of the brain.  They are performed by the frontal lobe of the brain.

Bright, intelligent people who have difficulties with executive functions (also called executive dysfunction) can have problems with their life that don’t match their general intelligence.  They can appear disorganised and have difficulty planning.   They can fail to notice other people’s perspectives and not notice when they communicate poorly.  They probably can’t multitask and they forget what they have been asked to do.

Children develop executive function skills over their entire childhood.  Small children are not expected to have well-developed executive functions.  However, the skills do need to be developing so that children can learn to do some of the complex tasks we demand of them.

Executive function disorder in children Particularly once they go to school they need to be able to learn literacy skills – a complex task.  We also expect them to be able to listen in a focussed way and remember what they hear.  They need to be able to write and edit their work and to tell about an experience in a logical, clear way.

Research has identified a number of specific executive functions which include:

  • WORKING MEMORY – the ability to hold onto information in order to process it.   This includes the ability to identify the main point, take all information into account, and tell a cohesive story in a logical sequence.  A functional working memory is needed for reading comprehension and following instructions.
  • INHIBITION – the ability to contain the desire to do something in order to stay on task until it is finished.  This includes staying focussed long enough to complete a task, and thinking through problem solving.  When talking, it includes the ability to stay on a topic and avoiding ‘going off on tangents’ when telling a story.
  • PLANNING AND ORGANISING  – the ability to plan and organise time, information and procedures effectively and efficiently.  This includes carrying out instructions accurately, and completing tasks on time and correctly without procrastinating.
  • MULTITASKING  – the ability to carry out more than one cognitive (thinking) process at a time.  This includes being able to do an action whilst talking.
  • EMOTIONAL CONTROL  – the ability to control escalating emotions in order to complete a task and keep emotions to a level that is appropriate.
  • INITIATING  – getting started on a task, including knowing where to start and what to do next.  This includes talking, telling a story and writing tasks.
  • SHIFTING FOCUS  – the ability to flexibly transition or shift attention if something changes.  This includes being able to change how something is being done when asked, and being able to see multiple possible solutions to a problem.
  • SELF-MONITORING  -  being mindful, recognising when a change is needed, and noticing when an error occurs.  This includes staying on a topic when talking, noticing changes of topics in groups, and answering questions accurately.  It is the thinking process that allows us to see when we have made a mistake, such as with spelling errors or punctuation in written work.  It also involves being relatively accurate in our judgment of our own and others’ behaviour.
  • ABSTRACT THINKING – being able to understand non-literal (figurative language) and non-verbal communication.  Non-literal language includes sarcasm, jokes and metaphors.  Non-verbal communication includes they way we get our message across apart from the words we use – such as tone of voice, body language and facial gestures.

brain with working memory problems Executive functions are crucial for effective listening and communication.  When they don’t work well, life can be very difficult, even for bright children and adults.

Some Speech Pathologists work specifically with improving executive functioning.