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Executive Function is a set of three cognitive processes - Working Memory, Inhibitory Control, and Cognitive Flexibility - that work together to allow us to plan, focus, and multitask for the successful completion of day-to-day tasks.

Elements of Executive Function

Working Memory

Working Memory is the ability to hold information in the mind and work with it. That is, information that is no longer perceptible. There are two types of Working Memory - verbal and visual spatial. Verbal Working Memory is responsible for the temporary conservation and manipulation of verbal information. Visual Spatial Working Memory is the ability to hold and manipulate visual information for short periods of time. That information includes objects and physical surroundings. Both forms of Working Memory are critical for the comprehension of information over time.

The ability to watch a movie and connect the events in the first scene with the motivation of the characters in the final scene is a function of Working Memory. Without the ability to hold the information in the mind for the duration of the movie, each scene would appear independent from the last and the movie would lack meaning as whole. The same is true for reading, listening to a story or a lecture, or when receiving verbal instructions. The ability to complete computations mentally, organize information, and identify the parts of a whole are also a function of Working Memory.

Although Working Memory is mostly associated with academic tasks, these same skills are also relevant to functioning in a social capacity. Being able to interpret a classmate’s actions over time, the ability to understand what others are saying, the ability to consider alternatives for a response, and being able to recall and apply past experiences to present decision-making, can greatly impact a student's social success.

Working Memory
The ability to hold information in the mind and work with it
Working Memory makes it possible to...

  • Make sense of things that happen over time
  • Comprehend spoken language
  • Comprehend text
  • Make mental computations
  • Organize information
  • Translate instruction into action plans
  • Consider alternatives
  • Include new information into thinking or action plans
  • Identify relationships between ideas
  • Reason
  • See connections between unrelated things
  • Identify parts of a whole
  • Incorporate past knowledge and experience into decision making
  • Identify changes in patterns or images
  • Manage time effectively
Weak Working Memory skills may result in…

  • Challenges with reading comprehension
  • Difficulty following directions
  • Difficulty recalling directions
  • Difficulty taking notes in a lecture-based class
  • Difficulty with mental computations
  • Challenges making action plans
  • The inability to make connections between unrelated things
  • The inability to see the parts of a whole
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty or inability to recognize patterns

Inhibitory Control

Inhibitory Control is the ability to control impulses (Center). These impulses include actions - the ability to resist temptation, controlling behavior, and resisting spontaneous reaction to stimuli. Being able to suppress unwanted thoughts, to ignore distractions, and to choose what to focus on are also functions of Inhibitory Control. Children with more effective Inhibitory Control are more likely to abstain from risky behaviors as teenagers - such as using drugs or smoking - and are more likely to have better overall physical health in adulthood (Diamond). That’s because the same Internal Control that keeps a child in his seat when he is excited or enables him to stick with a challenging task will help him deny the immediate gratification of risky behaviors as a teenager, and, in adulthood, will aid in making healthy versus tasty and convenient food choices.

Inhibitory Control
The ability to control one's impulses
Inhibitory Control makes it possible to...

  • Filter thoughts
  • Resist temptations
  • Suppress distractions
  • Resist habits
  • Be persistent
  • Control attention
  • Control behavior
  • Control emotions
  • Behave appropriately
  • Do what is needed
  • Think before acting
  • Resist reacting to stimuli
  • Resist unwanted thoughts or memories
  • Choose what to focus on
  • Delay gratification
  • Suppress extraneous information
  • Initiate tasks
Weak Inhibitory Control skills may result in…

  • Impulsive behavior
  • Indulgences/over indulgences in pleasures
  • Stealing
  • Cheating
  • Lying
  • Immediate gratification seeking
  • Giving up on challenging and/or unpreferred tasks
  • Hasty task completion
  • Giving up on long-term goals
  • Overreaction to stimuli
  • Procrastinating unpreferred tasks
  • Blurting out responses
  • The inability to wait
  • Engagement in risky behavior

Cognitive Flexibility

Cognitive Flexibility is the ability to change tasks, adjust to changed demands, changed priorities, and changed perspectives (Center). In the classroom, Cognitive Flexibility enables a student to clean up the crayons before finishing a drawing or line up for a fire drill without any previous warning. It also helps students to self-assess their progress, problem-solve, and change plans if necessary. Cognitive Flexibility allows people to see things from different perspectives - both spatially and inter-personally. For that reason it is part of what enables someone to admit to wrongdoing (Diamond).

Cognitive Flexibility
The ability to shift one’s thinking from one concept to another
Cognitive Flexibility makes it possible to...

  • Interpret information in different ways
  • Change perspectives spatially
  • Change perspectives inter-personally
  • Change approaches
  • Problem solve
  • Adjust to changed demands
  • Adjust to changed priorities
  • Admit wrongdoing
  • Take advantage of opportunities
  • Multitask
Weak Cognitive Flexibility skills may result in…

  • Rigid thinking
  • Getting “stuck” in arguments
  • The inability to compromise
  • Negative responses to changes in plans/schedules
  • Difficulty with fluctuating demands
  • Inability to switch tasks
  • Difficulty transitioning
  • Resisting change
  • Difficulty “thinking outside the box”
  • The inability to switch approaches when unsuccessful

Executive Dysfunction

Conditions Associated With Executive Dysfunction
Psychiatric Disorders

  • Depression
  • Mood Disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Neurodevelopmental Disorders

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
  • Learning Disabilities
  • Dyslexia
Acquired Brain Injury

  • Stroke
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Brain Illness

  • Toxic Stress (early abuse, trauma, neglect)
  • Prenatal Exposure to Alcohol

Problems with Executive Function, or Executive Dysfunction, look different for different people. There is not one reason or cause for Executive Dysfunction, and, as is the case for all learning differences, individuals should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis for their own strengths and weaknesses.

Executive Dysfunction is not a diagnosis, but rather a symptom or deficit that exists co-morbidly with other conditions. People with psychiatric disorders such as depression, mood disorders, schizophrenia (Elliott), and obsessive compulsive disorder (Snyder), often experience difficulties in executive function. People with neurodevelopmental disorders including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), learning disabilities, and Dyslexia (Morin), will experience difficulties in executive function skills. Executive functions are located primarily in the frontal lobe of the brain. Damage to this area through acquired brain injury (stroke, traumatic brain injury, dementia), can also have an impact on these functions (Center).

Early abuse, neglect, and exposure to violence, which cause toxic stress, has been shown to disrupt the development of the brain, having an impact on executive functions. Even newly chaotic, highly stressful environments can impact a child’s executive abilities, “even in situations (like school) where they may in fact be safe” (Center). Prenatal exposure to alcohol has been shown to affect executive functions in individuals, even in those who do not have Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

Supporting the Development of Executive Function

Although the conditions associated with Executive Dysfunction are typically present throughout life, working to strengthen these skills is beneficial for all students, regardless of their level of function. Having strong Executive Function skills is an asset to all students’ physical, mental, and social well-being. By creating a positive learning environment, scaffolding instruction to meet students where they are at developmentally, and providing supportive play opportunities, children can develop these skills and learn strategies to address areas of need.

Create a Positive Learning Environment

Creating a positive learning environment is the first step to developing Executive Function skills. A positive learning environment sets students up to be as successful as possible. Relaxed students are easier to engage, more focused, and more productive. The physical environment and class dynamic can be adjusted to help all students feel safe and ready to learn.

Although the condition of a classroom or building cannot be changed, the removal of clutter, keeping the classroom clean and organized, and eliminating distracting decorations from the classroom can help students feel safe and secure. A sense of belonging can be developed through scheduled clean-up times. Allowing students to decorate a bulletin board or to hang their artwork in the classroom can help students feel empowered and valued within the community. Just remember to keep the focus area of the classroom - the place where the teacher typically stands during direct instruction or the direction students face while seated in their desks - free of distractions.

Establish clear expectations for the class. Class rules let students know what to expect when they walk into a room which minimizes stress levels and make students more ready to learn. Not only can they monitor and adjust their own behavior, students are more likely to relax if they feel safe and cared for. Consistently enforcing the class rules lets the students know that the teacher is in control and that they are safe.

Clear academic expectations and goals give students a purpose for their work. They are better able to adjust their approach and seek help appropriately. Giving students this control is empowering, engaging, and promotes student independence.

Scaffolding Strategies at a Glance
  • Academic Outcomes

  • Social / Behavioral
    • Conversation
    • Show and Tell
    • Social Stories
    • Behavior Checklists
    • Point Sheets
    Student Knowledge
  • KWL Charts
  • Concept maps
  • Brainstorming
  • Written Reflections
  • Polls/Surveys
  • Use
    Visual Aids
  • Charts
  • Graphs
  • Images
  • Models
  • Manipulatives
  • Teach
  • Semantic Maps
  • Venn Diagrams
  • Word Walls
  • Provide Scaffolded Support

    Scaffolded assignments provide students with a framework and a tool for completing academic tasks. Scaffolding allows for challenging yet attainable goals by meeting students where they are at developmentally, building upon students’ strength, and providing a support in areas of weakness that may otherwise hinder progress. Engaging students at this level not only strengthens Executive Function skills, but it promotes autonomy and further enhances the overall student/learning dynamic.

    Scaffolding requires a good amount of legwork prior to teaching, but most teachers apply many of these strategies without labeling it as such.

    Provide Supported Play Opportunities

    Physical activities and games, exercise a student’s Working Memory, Inhibitory Control, and Cognitive Flexibility skills throughout the developmental stages. Even though these types of activities are typically viewed as “free time” - when teachers would be relatively hands off - students who struggle with tasks associated with Executive Function may struggle with many aspects of true free time. Developmentally, tasks that require the use of more Executive Function skills at one time are more challenging for younger children (Best), and adolescents who have weaker Executive Function skills will also find multi-faceted tasks more difficult. Free time activities like board games require students to access all three skill sets. Providing appropriate support will help children engage with others, increase the likelihood of positive outcomes, and aid in the development of Executive Functioning skills.

    Physical Activities

    Physical activity has been shown to improve Executive Function in children immediately following aerobic activity. This effect has been observed to be greater when the activity is also “cognitively-engaging” (Best). Paradoxically, some students might require support to access these physical activities, particularly activities that might be more cognitively engaging. Those activities are typically rule-centered group activities that require a great deal of social navigation. Choosing tasks that are developmentally appropriate will increase the likelihood of meeting the teacher’s objective of challenging the students’ skills without reaching frustration.

    For children aged 3-5 years, encouraging movement challenges in the classroom or on the playground that utilize play structures, balance beams, or other playground equipment requires focus, flexibility in thinking, the ability to monitor and adjust their actions, and persistence to achieve their goal (Center).

    Children aged 5-7 years, are beginning to enjoy games that have rules. Games like “Freeze Dance”, “Musical Chairs”, “Red Light, Green Light” or “Duck, Duck, Goose”, challenge working memory (remembering the rule, tracking other’s movements), inhibitory control (resist reacting to stimuli), and cognitive flexibility (changing plans, owning mistakes) (Center).

    From grade school to middle school, aged 7-12 years, students are more able to tolerate advanced games with more complex rules and increased engagement. Organized sports are excellent for engaging students outside of the classroom. Providing students with the same level of engagement within a regular classroom setting can be achieved through jump rope games, “Hide and Go Seek”, and “Tag” (Center). These games provide challenges for the working memory (remembering rules, creating a plan), inhibitory control (suppress distractions, persistence), and cognitive flexibility (multitask, problem solve, change perspectives).

    With the increased academic demand in high school, opportunities for adolescents to engage in physical activity during class time become far and few between. Encourage students to participate in P.E., to participate in organized sports or extracurricular teams, or to participate in community activities such as yoga or meditation (Center). Of course, if time and space allows, and the students are open to physical challenges, obstacle courses, jump rope games, and pick up games, will support the development of adolescents’ skills.


    Playing games is a great way to practice and develop the skills necessary to be successful in and out of the classroom.

    For children aged 3-5 years,matching and sorting games, puzzles, and song games are great for engaging students and developing skills. These games engage all areas of executive function: working memory (attention, memory), inhibitory control (ability to follow rules) and cognitive flexibility (change approaches).

    Students aged 5-7 years are ready for more challenging games that require more social interaction. Simple card games like “Go Fish”, and board games that require some strategy such as Checkers, Mancala, and Battleship provide the necessary challenge for practicing their working memory and cognitive flexibility, while the social aspect challenges their inhibitory control.

    By 7 -12 years of age, games that involve strategy and/or fast responses are appropriate and challenging. Card games such as “Spit”, and board games like chess challenge all three areas of executive function. Rummy and Hearts are also great for exercising working memory and cognitive flexibility.

    Adolescents will benefit from strategy games and logic puzzles. Activities that engage working memory, and prioritize planning and attention help adolescents develop the skills necessary to navigate life as they move towards adulthood (Center).

    Works Cited

    Best, John R. Effects of Physical Activity on Children's Executive Function: Contributions of Experimental Research on Aerobic Exercise. HHS Public Access. HHS Author Manuscripts. 2010, Dec. 30.

    Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2013). Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function: Working Paper No. 11.

    Diamond, Adele. Executive Functions. NIH Public Access. Author Manuscript.

    Elliott, Rebecca. “Executive functions and their disorders: Imaging in clinical neuroscience.”

    Kusnyer, Laura and Kristin Stanberry. Executive Function 101. The National Center for Learning Disabilities, Inc. 2013.

    McCalla, Angie. “Executive Functioning – Where is it Controlled and How Does it Develop? / Remediation Techniques for Deficits and Dysfunction.”

    Morin, Amanda. “Understanding Executive Functioning Issues”.

    Snyder, H., Kaiser, R., Warren, S., & Heller, W. (2014). Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Is Associated With Broad Impairments in Executive Function: A Meta-Analysis. Clinical Psychological Science.

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