A Guide to Executive Function

“Where there is no struggle, there is no strength.” – Oprah Winfrey, American executive and philanthropist

What is Executive Function?

Executive function refers to the operations of the brain that control and facilitate the execution of skills and behaviors required to achieve chosen goals. This set of processes neurologically assists with the management of resources to complete predetermined tasks. Examples of executive function include adaptable thinking, planning, self-monitoring, self-control, working memory, time management, and organization. Executive function is activated in situations that require planning, error correction, step-by-step actions, technically difficult behavior, and overcoming impulses.

Executive Function in the Brain

The back of the brain stores any learned information, while the front of the brain implements this information into a working motion. Executive function is a product of this collaborative process; however, it takes place predominantly in the frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex, which are the sections of the brain responsible for planning, decision making, and other cognitive behaviors and reactions. When the brain interacts with external stimuli, these executive brain functions strategically inhibit the body’s natural reactions and impulses, using the ability to foresee outcomes. Fundamentally, executive function restricts the body from acting without thinking.

What is Executive Function Disorder?

Executive Function Disorder (EFD), also called executive dysfunction, is a developmental issue that inhibits the brain’s ability to carry out projects, goals, and tasks. Children with EFD have difficulty organizing materials, keeping track of belongings, planning and sticking to a schedule, and completing projects with a deadline.

Executive function typically begins to develop at the age of two and progresses well into adulthood. When this growth is slowed, a child may be more likely to act on impulse or struggle to be motivated by long-term objectives. EFD is an all-encompassing term for this broad developmental obstacle that frequently includes or results in other learning difficulties such as Attention Deficit Hypersensitivity Disorder (ADHD) or dyslexia.


While the exact causes of executive dysfunction are unknown, the medical community today focuses on a few possible catalysts. Medical professionals claim the primary cause of EFD, among other learning challenges, is heredity. Other studies suggest external events such as injury, a stroke, or other forms of sustained brain damage may result in weakened executive functioning.

Signs and Symptoms

Early signs of EFD may appear during several different life stages because executive functions take many years to fully develop. Potential signs can be common behaviors for any child, but incessant difficulty with executive functions is often indicative of EFD. Signs and symptoms include:

  • Trouble starting or completing tasks
  • Difficulty prioritizing
  • Problems with retaining information
  • Issues following directions or a sequence of steps
  • Panic when rules or routines change
  • Trouble switching focus from one task to another
  • Becoming overly emotional or obsessive
  • Difficulty organizing thoughts
  • Struggling to keep track of belongings
  • Problems with time management

Executive functions interact with one another so early difficulty has a domino effect throughout the growth and development of a child. It’s important to be aware of these signs to take appropriate action and limit possible long-term effects.

Diagnosis and Treatment Strategies

Due to its circumstantial nature, diagnosing EFD can be difficult. Testing is one of the most efficient and well-known methods used for diagnosis. Several standardized tests are designed to measure the strength of a child’s executive function by assessing skills associated with the prefrontal cortex. The evaluated skills include attention, organization, planning, impulse control, multitasking, and the formation of concepts.

Executive function can be improved. Cognitive behavioral therapy, specialized learning centers, the use of a psychologist, and tutoring are all effective strategies to assist a child with an executive function deficit. The classroom may be a particularly challenging environment for a child with EFD, and both parents and teachers must be disciplined, attentive, and continuously accommodating to help with the child’s progress.

How Hill Learning Center Can Help

We can make a difference. Hill Learning Center is dedicated to transforming students with learning differences and attention challenges into confident, independent learners. Contact us if you’re interested in taking the next step.

Sources: ADDitude, Oxford Academic, Understood

Related News Stories