What is executive function?

A person silhohouetted against a background of interconnecting lights

Executive functioning is a term that describes cognitive processes involved in carrying out everyday tasks, such as planning ahead, following through on commitments, and solving problems.

It is a mental process that enables a person to focus attention and juggle multiple tasks successfully. A good visual for executive functioning is to think about air traffic control.

Air traffic control have to respond to a lot of information and process complex instructions in a fast amount of time. If there was no air traffic control then airports would be in chaos.

The same happens within the brain – when these cognitive processes are disrupted they can lead to problems with concentration, day-to-day decision making, and organizing one’s thoughts.

Poor executive functioning is one of the most common reasons for poor performance, problems paying attention, and difficulty concentrating. A good understanding of the challenges people with poor executive functioning face can help to give them the support they need to succeed.

It is important for people to be able to carry out everyday tasks without mistakes, individuals with poor executive functioning often have trouble doing this.

The main executive functions

Working memory – responsible for the ability to hold onto information until it is needed.

Attention – the ability to focus on important things in a particular context and not be influenced by distractions.

Cognitive flexibility – the ability to switch between different tasks (being able to switch between working memory and attention).

Inhibitory control – the ability to stop being distracted and focus keeping self control.

Verbal reasoning – described as a person’s ability to make inferences, draw conclusions, and identify main ideas from reading passages. This could include the ability to understand written instructions.

Mental control – the ability to control one’s own thoughts and emotions without being controlled by others.

Executive functioning & mental health

Effects of poor executive functioning can also include difficulties in social interactions, behavioural issues, problems with academic performance, and issues with emotional regulation (such as feelings of anger or sadness).

Research has shown that poor executive functioning has also been found to be a risk factor for the development of mental health problems. This is due to the fact that poor executive functioning increases the risk of developing depression and of having a range of mental health problems.

To improve executive function there are a number of strategies that can be used. Some of the more common ones include:

  • practicing of switching tasks
  • support with how to solve problems
  • taking regular breaks
  • asking for help or being given respectful support
  • developing specific motor planning skills like memory training
  • having clear work flows or processes to follow