What is executive function?

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By Rob Hill

What is executive function? It sounds a bit corporate doesn’t it, like something to do with being good at your job.

And it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. The pedant in me protests that we should be saying “executive functioning” instead.

But executive function (correct term) is something that we all do every day. Some of us are better at it than others. Neurodivergent people in particular can struggle with executive function.

And it’s certainly not exclusively to do with work.

What do we mean by executive function?

Executive function is a set of mental skills that include working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. We use these skills every day to learn, work, and manage our daily lives.

The concept of executive function, and how it’s controlled by the frontal lobe of our brains, came to prominence in the early 1970s. Research discovered that certain frontal lobe functions played an essential role in organising and regulating what’s called our “working memory”. How we organise our lives – all day, every day.

(Diversion – research into how the frontal lobe works sprang from a case in the 1840s when a railroad construction worker had an accident and ended up with an iron rod partially driven into his brain (yup!). He survived and recovered, but his left frontal lobe was destroyed, and this resulted in significant behavioural and personality changes. You can read about it here https://samgoldstein.com/resources/articles/general/a-history-of-executive-functioning-as-a-theoretical-and-clinical-construct.aspx).

But back to the present day.

People who struggle with executive function may find it hard to focus, follow directions, solve problems, or handle emotions. It impacts them personally and professionally.

A stylised icon of a brain in green with some sections coloured in, representing what is executive function

The three main areas of executive function

  1. Working memory – the ability to retain information until it’s needed. When we need the information, we work with it, play with it, and manipulate it. Holding information in our minds without manipulation is simply short-term memory.
  2. Cognitive flexibility (also called flexible thinking) – seeing an issue or situation from a different perspective. Being able to adapt to sudden changes in our lives. Finding a way to succeed despite unexpected problems.
  3. Inhibitory control – self-control, basically. Having the discipline to stop getting distracted and focus on whatever task is in front of us. Resisting temptation (often difficult at the best of times). Sticking to a task despite distractions and boredom, and finishing it, requires inhibitory control.

Executive function is responsible for many skills, such as:

  • Paying attention in conversations
  • Organising and planning our time
  • Starting tasks and staying focussed on them so we can complete them
  • Understanding different points of view
  • Reflecting on our past, considering our future, and understanding how the two are bound up together
  • Regulating our emotions
  • Exercising mental control, the ability to be governed by our own thoughts and not somebody else’s

In the training we deliver we describe executive function as being like air traffic control. Our brains need to perform some – or all – of these skills simultaneously and in-sync so we can achieve the outcomes we want. Just like an air traffic controller organising all the planes arriving and departing at an airport. Even if they have amazing software to help them, it’s still a job requiring an incredible level of skill and concentration – could you do it?

Executive function skills usually start developing in early childhood, accelerating through the teenage years. And our various lived experiences mean that we’re still learning executive function skills well into adulthood.

Many children, especially those with ADHD for example, may have poor inhibitory control. They struggle to curb a behaviour they know is wrong or unhelpful. Parents and peer groups often incorrectly assume that this indicates “bad” behaviour or a discipline problem. But it can simply indicate immature inhibitory control.

Our former Head of Neurodiversity Chezzy did a superb TED Talk exploring this subject, called There’s No Such Thing As A Naughty Child. You can watch it here https://youtu.be/7b1ERmSWlN4?si=CheJiIoFYBl5HxD5

What are the signs that somebody is struggling with executive function?

Although executive function is recognised as a neurological mechanism, it’s not recognised as a disability (unlike many other neurodivergent conditions).

And whilst any of us can sometimes struggle with executive function, those struggles are particularly common amongst neurodivergent people. Almost everyone with ADHD has trouble with executive function.

Signs that someone is struggling with executive function include:

  • Difficulty in starting and completing tasks
  • Difficulty in prioritising tasks
  • Quickly and easily forget any information they’ve just been given
  • Trouble in following directions or a sequence of task steps
  • Panic when rules or routines change, especially at short notice
  • Trouble switching from one task to another
  • Difficulty managing their time
  • Becoming fixated on a particular topic or task

What causes poor executive functioning?

Research into executive function has expanded significantly since the 1970s. It’s not breaking news to state that the way our brains work is incredibly complex. And when we identify what is effectively a management system for the brain, that system will take a lifetime to understand.

This early research has highlighted that our frontal lobe systems have evolved more recently than other parts of our brain. They’re more subject to variations in development than the older parts of our brain. When these areas develop more slowly as we grow up, that often results in struggles with executive function.

Genes and heredity may also play a part. People who struggle with executive function may have family members who do too.

Research has shown that poor executive functioning is a risk factor for the development of mental health problems. If you’re trying – and failing – on a daily basis to complete what seem like simple tasks, that everyone else seems to do without difficulty, it’s going to influence your self-esteem.

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Can we improve poor executive functioning?

To improve any executive function, practice is essential, both for children and adults. Our brains need to be continually challenged so they can improve.

Some of these activities might take us out of our comfort zones. They might involve socialising. Or planning in advance. Or lateral thinking. And they definitely require perseverance.

  1. How to improve working memory.
  • Perform working math. Try adding up your shopping bill as you’re going around the supermarket. If you’re watching sports on TV, then try calculating the ongoing or final scores (easier for some sports than others).
  • Listening to stories and tales, or reading an article in a magazine, then trying to recall specific details afterwards.
  • Watch a simple how-to video on YouTube, then afterwards write down all the steps involved. Check back with the video to see how you did.
  • How to improve cognitive flexibility.
  • This is a social one. Taking part in improvisational activities or courses like theatre, dance, and creative writing are great for encouraging and nurturing creativity.
  • Think outside the box. Take an everyday item, like a table. Obviously, it’s used for eating. But make a list of everything else you could use it for. Hiding under it. Standing on it. Drawing on it. Hacking it up and using it as firewood.
  • One for teachers and parents. Invite children to help you solve a problem that you’re genuinely unsure how to solve. It’s a great way to challenge a child and make them feel involved.
  • How to improve inhibitory control.
  • Activities that challenge our motor skills and focus concentration can be basic. They’re part of our daily routines anyway. They include pouring a liquid, spooning food, carrying a tray of full cups or glasses, peeling vegetables, or threading a needle.
  • Activities that challenge balance and focus concentration include walking along a log or walking along a line (the floor is made of lava!), especially if you’re carrying something at the same time.
  • Listening to stories read aloud improves sustained attention because it requires listeners to focus their attention without visual aids. Listening to storytelling improves paying attention more than reading a story would.

So now you know a bit more about executive function, and how to spot when somebody you know might be struggling with it. This can be especially relevant at work, when we often mask our struggles because we want to look competent and productive.

But help is at hand through the specialist training we provide. If you want to know more about our Neurodiversity In The Workplace training, click on the link below and contact us. We can help provide the solutions you need.