What Are Executive Functions?

By Laurie Moore Skillings, SCAC


Executive functions are brain-based skills that we all use when performing tasks.

Where are Executive Functions located?

Executive functions are primarily located in the prefrontal lobes of the cerebral cortex.

When do Executive Functions develop?

None of us are born with executive functions skills. They begin developing during infancy and continue to develop over time. They do not necessarily develop at the same rate as others may develop.

What are individual Executive Functions* and what do they help with?

  • Response Inhibition: The capacity to think before acting and to resist the urge to say or do something. This ability allows a person the time to evaluate a situation and how his or her behavior might affect it.
  • Working Memory: The ability to hold information in memory while performing complex tasks. It incorporates the ability to draw on past learning or experience to apply to the situation at hand or to project into the future.
  • Emotional Control: The ability to manage emotions to achieve goals, complete tasks, or control and direct behavior.
  • Sustained Attention: The capacity to maintain attention to a situation or task in spite of distractions, fatigue, or boredom.
  • Task Initiation: The ability to begin projects without undue procrastination, in an efficient or timely fashion.
  • Planning/Prioritization: The ability to create a road map to reach a goal or to complete a task. It also involves being able to make decisions about what is and is not important to focus on.
  • Organization: The ability to create and maintain systems to keep track of information or materials.
  • Time Management: The capacity to estimate how much time one has, how to allocate it, and how to stay within time limits and deadlines. It also involves a sense, the time is important. A young child can complete a short job within the time limit set by an adult. A high school student can establish a schedule to meet task deadlines.
  • Goal-directed Persistence: The capacity to have a goal, follow-through to the completion of the goal, and not be put off by or distracted by competing interests.
  • Flexibility: The ability to revise plans the face of obstacles, setbacks, new information, or mistakes. It relates to an adaptability to changing conditions.
  • Metacognition: The ability to stand back and take a birds eye view of oneself in a situation. It is a person’s ability to observe how he or she problem solves. And also include self-monitoring and self evaluative skills (e.g., asking “How am I doing?” or “How did I do?”).

* Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents, Second Edition: A Practical Guide to Assessment and Intervention (Guilford Practical Intervention in the Schools)