What Are the Executive Functions?
According the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), a formal definition for executive function is:
“Executive function is a set of mental processes that helps connect past experience with present action. People use it to perform activities such as planning, organizing, strategizing, paying attention to and remembering details, and managing time and space (1)."
A simpler, more concrete definition would go something like this: the tools our brain uses to get things done. Whenever we must carry out a task, meet a goal, recall a memory, or create a plan, our brain is using its executive functions.
With just the realization that the executive functions are essential to getting things accomplished, it’s not difficult to understand why so much importance has been given to this topic. In fact, while this topic has gained popularity over the last couple of years, it isn’t new. Medical professionals and psychologists have been studying these fascinating skills for quite some time and have come to some interesting conclusions.
Dr. Lynn Margolies, Ph.D outlines some of these conclusions in her article, "Executive Functions or Just a Lazy Kid? Part 1." One interesting point that Dr. Margolies relays is that contrary to common belief, executive function is not the same as intelligence, because the functioning is not determined by how much is known.
She goes onto to say that “it is an aspect of intelligence in that it involves expressing or translating what we know into action" (2). She also mentions that developing the executive functions is a slow process, stating that “[it] emerges in late infancy, goes through marked changes during the ages 2 through 6, and does not peak until around age 25" (2).
This signifies that the development of the executive functions is a process; being enriched and strengthened throughout childhood and young adulthood. Finally, it is important to mention that studies have found that a deficit in executive functions can often be hereditary, but also can be attributed to stress or traumatic events (3).