What are executive functions? How do you have an executive function disability?


Jules Csillag, learning specialist & speech-language pathologist

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The terms executive function, executive functions, and executive functioning all refer to our individual brain’s pilots, as it were. It refers to anywhere from 4 to 36 sub-skills that deal with things like task initiation, sustained attention, time management, and organization. These skills delegate what other brain regions to recruit to help out with tasks. Executive functions work like a funnel or bottleneck: if you have a difficulty there, your brain may be “recruiting” inappropriate brain regions to help with tasks (or not enough brain regions), which reduces your ability to be effective.

Whatever the terminology you use, these are important sub-tasks. Take an example of going to the grocery store (courtesy of Michael Rosenthal at the Child Mind Institute). Here is a short list of executive functions you would need to do this task successfully:

  • planning & prioritization: write a list of what you need, deciding what will run out at what rate

  • task initiation: actually go to the grocery store

  • organizing: decide on the most efficient way of getting what you need; do you get all fruits at one time, then all canned goods?

  • sustained attention: continue shopping and checking off your list

  • time management: be aware of how long this task is taking you (so you’re not late for your next task)

  • emotional regulation: regulate your emotions (what if they don’t have your favorite brand of peanut butter?)

  • flexibility: if they do not have your favorite brand of peanut butter, do you get another brand or type?

  • goal-directed persistence: continue shopping until you have completed all that you can on your list

  • metacognition: self-check! How did you do? Use your list to help you with this step

An executive function disability can be a difficulty in any one of these areas.

My favorite book for parents about Executive Functions Disabilities is Smart but Scattered (Dawson & Guare). My favorite book for teachers about Executive Function Disabilities is Promoting Executive Function in the Classroom (Meltzer).

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