FAQ’s About Executive Functions

Answers by Milton J. Dehn, Ed.D.

What are executive functions?

They are an individual’s cognitive self-awareness and self-regulation skills. They function as mental supervisors, consciously and unconsciously regulating and managing other mental capacities, such as cognitive abilities. Executive functioning is purposeful, organized, strategic, self-regulated, goal-directed processing of emotions, thoughts, and actions. Planning and organization are often cited as primary executive function skills, but some authors list more than 30 separate executive functions. Why are executive functions important? They control and influence all our thoughts and behaviors. We may have high abilities and skills, but our success at nearly everything ultimately depends on well-developed executive functions.

How do executive functions impact academic achievement?

They have a significant impact not just on acquiring skills, but on academic performance. For example, a student with poor executive function skills struggles to complete assigned schoolwork.

Do students with learning disabilities have executive function weaknesses?

Research tells us that there is a high probability that they do. One sign is that their achievement, such as grades, is even lower than their academic skills. For example, they have adequate writing skills, but still fail writing assignments.

How are executive functions related to ADHD?

Control of attention is one aspect of executive functioning. Also, deficits in the executive function known as inhibition can cause or be related to ADHD. For example, poor inhibition makes you very distractible.

What’s the difference between “knowing when” and “knowing how”?

You might know how to perform an executive function, such as engage in good planning, but you may not know when to be planful because you don’t recognize cues and situations where planning is necessary. If you don’t know when, cues and prompts from others may get you started planning. If you don’t know how, you won’t be able to plan even when directed to do so.

How do males and females compare on executive functions?

Research on children and adolescents confirms that females generally have better developed executive functions than males of the same age.

What is the brain basis of executive functions?

The executive functions “control center” is located in the brain’s frontal lobes, especially in a region known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

How can executive functions be tested?

Observations, interviews, and history provide good assessment data. There are formal, performance-based tests of executive functions, but rating scales completed by informants and examinees are also a common way of assessing executive functions. One such rating scale is the McCloskey Executive Functions Scale.

How can executive functions be improved?

Either by training the individual to be more aware of when it is time to engage one or more executive functions, or by teaching the skill itself when it is lacking. For example, planning skills can be directly taught and also individuals can be taught to recognize when it is time to be planful.

See the following resources on executive functions.

Executive Function: Skill-Building and Support Strategies, Grades 6-12 – Schoolhouse Educational Services, Inc.
Executive Function: Skill-Building Support Strategies for the Elementary Classroom – Schoolhouse Educational Services, Inc.