Executive functioning (EF) is an area I often get asked about and asked to assess in educational evaluations. Most folks tend to know executive functioning is important, but are not quite sure what it means and what skills it entails. This entry will explain EF and its impact on school performance and daily functioning.

Executive functioning is a term describing a set of cognitive processes involving mental control and self-regulation. These processes are necessary for achieving goals and functioning effectively in everyday life. As people age and their brains develop, EF skills strengthen; in fact, the area of the brain controlling executive functions is the last to fully develop. Even with full brain development, some people still have difficulty with EF due to Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), brain injury, substance use, or other reason.

These are some of the main processes that are part of executive functioning:

Attention – The ability to keep one’s focus on a particular task. Without good EF abilities, attention wonders and focus on a task is easily lost.

Self-Control – The ability to control one’s actions. Without good EF abilities, an individual may be impulsive, interrupting, and saying or doing things that are not appropriate for the situation. This is also true with controlling one’s emotions.

Planning – The ability to plan the steps necessary to reach a goal. Individuals with EF difficulties tend to start tasks impulsively without thinking through a plan, which often leads to failure, unnecessary difficulty, or taking much longer than necessary to complete the task.

Time Management – The ability to be aware of time constraints and plan accordingly to avoid going over-time or being late. Without good EF skills, individuals may not recognize how long certain tasks take and fail to allow themselves enough time to complete them. This leads to being late or running out of time.

Organization – The ability to keep items and plans in order, including keeping track of appointments, assignments, and materials. Without good EF skills, individuals often misplace things or forget plans.

Task Initiation – The ability to motivate oneself to start a task. Difficulties with task initiation are often seen through procrastination, either with homework, chores/household tasks, or work assignments.

While this is not a complete list of EF processes, it is obvious how each area can interfere with school or work performance. Additionally, difficulties in these areas can also affect relationships, as parents become frustrated with their teens for not doing chores or forgetting to do homework. Similarly, romantic partners, friends, or employers may become frustrated with an adult who doesn’t keep plans, is often late, and does not listen well or interrupts when another is talking. It is important to remember that these behaviors are not easily controllable or fixable when true EF deficits exist. Thankfully, there are some interventions that can help in these areas for improved functioning.