What is Executive Functioning?

Formal Definition: The executive functions are a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation.

This is a large umbrella. Different researchers and practitioners have their own favorite lists, although the overall concept is basically the same. EDGE uses the list proposed by Drs. Gerard A. Gioia, Peter K. Isquith, Steven C. Guy, and Lauren Kenworthy. These psychologists developed their understanding of executive functions through sound research and created a rating scale that helps young adults, their parents, and professionals understand a particular individual and think more specifically about how to help.

Below is the list of executive functions from Dr. Gioia and his colleagues. 

  • Inhibition – The ability to stop one’s own behavior at the appropriate time, including stopping actions and thoughts. The flip side of inhibition is impulsivity; if you have weak ability to stop yourself from acting on your impulses, then you are “impulsive”.
  • Shift – The ability to move freely from one situation to another and to think flexibly in order to respond appropriately to the situation.
  • Emotional Control – The ability to modulate emotional responses by bringing rational thought to bear on feelings. 
  • Initiation – The ability to begin a task or activity and to independently generate ideas, responses, or problem-solving strategies. 
  • Working memory – The capacity to hold information in mind for the purpose of completing a task.
  • Planning/Organization – The ability to manage current and future- oriented task demands. 
  • Organization of Materials – The ability to impose order on work, play, and storage spaces. 
  • Self-Monitoring – The ability to monitor one’s own performance and to measure it against some standard of what is needed or expected. 

The executive functions are a diverse, but related and overlapping, set of skills. In order to understand a person, it is important to look at which executive skills are problematic for her and to what degree. Thinking about what life is like for someone with weak executive functioning gives us a better understanding of the way these core skills affect our ability to manage life tasks.

In school, at home or in the workplace, we’re called on all day, every day, to self-regulate behavior. Normally, features of executive function are seen in our ability to:

  • make plans
  • keep track of time
  • keep track of more than one thing at once
  • meaningfully include past knowledge in discussions
  • engage in group dynamics
  • evaluate ideas
  • reflect on our work
  • change our minds and make mid-course and corrections while thinking, reading and writing
  • finish work on time
  • ask for help
  • wait to speak until we’re called on
  • seek more information when we need it

Problems with executive function may be manifested when a person:

  • has difficulty planning a project
  • has trouble comprehending how much time a project will take to complete
  • struggles to tell a story (verbally or in writing); has trouble communicating details in an organized, sequential manner
  • has difficulty with the mental strategies involved in memorization and retrieving information from memory
  • has trouble initiating activities or tasks, or generating ideas independently
  • has difficulty retaining information while doing something with it; e.g., remembering a phone number while dialing.