Executive Functioning and Why it Matters

By Jess Corinne
January 26, 2021

E.F. is the CEO of the Brain

Executive function is like the CEO of the brain. It’s in charge of making sure things get done from the planning stages of the job to the final deadline. When learners have issues with executive functioning, any task that requires planning, organization, memory, time management and flexible thinking becomes a challenge. EF weaknesses are very common, can stand alone or partner with another formal diagnosis, and can be treated using consistent, strategic and systematic approaches across all environments.


There are several key skills involved in Executive Functioning, your learner may not struggle with all of them to the same degree. Executive skills include:

Metacognition is the ability to think about thinking. Learners who have trouble with metacognition:

  • struggles to differentiate what he knows and what he doesn’t know about a topic as he learns
  • does not study for assessments, complete challenging assignments, or comprehend new learning material easily

Impulse Control is the ability to stop and think before acting. Learners who have trouble with impulse control:

  • may blurt things out
  • do unsafe things without thinking it through
  • are likely to rush through homework without checking it
  • may quit a chore halfway through to go hang out with friends
  • have trouble following rules consistently
  • may or may not have ADHD

Emotional Control is the ability to manage her feelings by focusing on the end result or goal. Emotional control and impulse control are closely related. Learners who struggle with emotional control:

  • often have trouble accepting negative feedback
  • may overreact to little injustices
  • may struggle to finish a task when something upsets them

Flexibility is the ability to roll with the punches and come up with new approaches when a plan fails. Learners who are inflexible:

  • think in very concrete ways
  • don’t see other options or solutions
  • find it difficult to change course
  • may get panicky and frustrated when they’re asked to do so

Working Memory is the ability to hold information in her mind and use it to complete a task. Learners who have weak working memory skills:

  • have trouble with multi-step tasks
  • have a hard time remembering directions, taking notes or understanding something you’ve just explained to them
  • frequently may say, “I forgot what I was going to say.”

Self-Monitoring is the ability to keep track of and evaluate her performance on regular tasks.

Learners who have trouble self-monitoring:

  • lack self-awareness
  • can’t tell if their strategies are working
  • may not even realize they have strategies
  • often don’t know how to check their work

Planning and Prioritizing is the ability to come up with the steps needed to reach a goal and to decide their order of importance. Learners with weak planning and prioritizing skills:

  • may not know how to start planning a project
  • may be easily overwhelmed trying to break tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks
  • may have trouble seeing the main idea

Task Initiation is the ability to get started on something. Learners who struggle with initiation:

  • often have issues with planning and prioritizing too. Without having a plan for a task, it’s hard to know how to start.
  • can come across as lazy or as simply procrastinating
  • often they’re just so overwhelmed they freeze and do nothing

Organization is the ability to keep track of information and things. Learners with organizational issues:

  • are constantly losing or misplacing things
  • can’t find a way to get organized even when there are negative consequences to being disorganized

Can Executive Functioning skills be improved?

Absolutely! By explicitly teaching and practicing EF skills, we ensure that all learners have the strong foundation they need to be successful in and outside of the classroom. The idea is that we can train our brains to improve basic skills like organization and self-control. Kids and young adults can also learn valuable compensatory strategies to help them through their struggles with staying organized, paying attention, and persevering through challenges. Not only does this give learners immediate short-term benefits, but gives support in the long-term as well. Below are some simple, but effective, strategies in teaching and practicing executive functioning skills:

  • Changes in environment- noise level, visual reminders, eating
  • Changes in interactions- specific direction, encouragement, immediate feedback
  • Teaching specific skills- goals, coaching, plan-do-review (PDR)
  • Classroom wide interventions- routines, small groups
  • Quality control- consistently monitor progress, goals & projects
  • Explicit teaching
  • Ongoing guidance & support
  • Leading by example- model, model, model!
  • Monitoring progress
  • Identifying obstacles (in advance, if possible, but also reflectively)
  • Recognizing and rewarding effort
  • Clear structure & expectations
  • Team collaboration is key!

Want to read more?

If you would like to read more, below are some additional external resources on Executive Functioning:

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