Executive Functioning: What is It?

I'm sure we've all heard this term before. If you are a teacher, especially a special educator, you know this term well.  You might even be someone who struggles with this yourself (*raises hand*). This is such an important term that encompasses so much! But what does this all mean..?

What is executive functioning?

Executive functioning is the command center of the brain. Executive functions are the skills of the brain used for planning, organizing, and managing our thoughts. To say executive functioning is important is an understatement.

What are some executive functioning skills?

Neurologists are learning more and more about executive functioning every day. They have determined several specific skills that are defined as "executive functions" and they work in connection with each other and other parts of our functioning. This means, if you struggle with executive functioning skills, it can be very debilitating.

Click here to get this table as a PDF for future reference!

How does this affect us as learners?

Executive functions are extremely intertwined. Often, an individual will struggle with most, if not all of these areas when they have an executive functioning deficit. And even if they don't have challenges in all these areas, having just a few can impact a learner pretty significantly.

Take this example. You need to get ready for work.You need to plan what you are going to wear, what you're going to eat, and what you need to bring with you. You'll need to make sure you don't get caught up on Facebook when you should be getting ready by prioritizing your time and tasks.You need to manage your time by allowing yourself enough time to get shower, get dressed, pack your lunch, and drive to work. You need to organize your things for the day, especially since you'll be headed out to dinner straight from work for your co-worker's 40th birthday, so you won't have time to come home at all if you forget something (like your co-worker's birthday present). In order for you to remember this change in schedule in the first place, your working memory better be on point. On your way to work, there is an accident on your typical route, so you need to reroute yourself to get to work on time, in which you need to engage your flexibility. Maybe someone cuts you off in traffic on your way to work. You need to use your impulse control skills to ensure you don't get arrested for endangering others (I joke...sorta). Once you get to work, you need to begin planning your work day and prioritizing your tasks, making sure to utilize those time management skills to adhere to that deadline that's today! While at work, you realize what you've been working on isn't turning out exactly like it should, so you utilize your self-monitoring skills to determine a change is needed. Make sure you initiate those tasks that need to get started today in order to plan ahead those big projects that are coming up. Oh, and later, at a team meeting, you need your working memory up and running so you can remember the important points of the meeting and begin employing those in your work that afternoon. And just wait 'til that after-work birthday celebration - there will be lots of opportunities to employ some of those impulse control skills!

This is just one example - and it wasn't even that much of a stretch. These are very real skills that have very real consequences (both good and bad). All the more reason we need to strengthen these skills!

So, how do I do that?

First, it's important to identify your, or your learner's strengths and weaknesses in the area of executive functioning. Maybe they have poor impulse control, but are planful and organized. Once you determine the areas of strengths and areas in which support is needed, you can begin to utilize those skills that are strong, and build up those areas that are weaker.

Recognize that executive skills are life skills that need to be taught. If you or your learners struggle with these, you need to teach these skills explicitly and directly. Some strategies are:
  • Use of checklists, reminders, and visual schedules - these need to be explicitly taught as well. Handing someone a To Do list does little good if they don't know how to use it. Remember that task initiation skill? If someone struggles in this area, having the words "do laundry" on a checklist will do little good in strengthening this skill.
  • Doing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for developing self-regulation skills and problem solving. Guided by empirical research, CBT focuses on developing personal coping strategies that target solving current problems, and helps to change unhelpful patterns of thoughts, behaviors, and emotional regulation.
  • Teach emotional regulation and coping skills - and practice these skills during stressful and non-stressful times!
  • Break down loftier tasks and assignments. Teach the learner to identify and prioritize the first steps of a task.
  • Teach the "big picture" - teach the learner to identify the goal, then work backward from there. Often, people with executive functioning challenges have tunnel vision and only see the present. If we teach the person to visualize the goal, we can teach them to identify the steps needed to achieve this goal, working backward until we are at the present.
  • Boost up that working memory by playing memory games, practicing visualization, and promoting active reading.
  • Work on flexible thinking with a variety of games and books. This is a skill that needs practicing! Check out Social Thinking for some excellent resources, such as SuperFlex!
  • Make accommodations to help support the learner in the classroom, such as use of graphic organizers and the use of technology. Make sure you are making similar accommodations for yourselves and the adults in your life!

Executive functioning deficits can be challenging to overcome (I should know!), and require life long practice. Ensuring you get started now for supporting yourself (or others) by strengthening these skills is crucial! There are so many great resources out there to help people learn about executive functioning and skill building, so don't give up!

You might also like this post, devoted to the ways I managed my classroom and helped support my students with organization.

What are some ways you help strengthen your executive functioning skills? Leave a comment below!

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