Executive Functions of the Brain: What They Are and How We Can Improve Them

Executive Functions of the Brain: What They Are and How We Can Improve Them
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This seemingly new catch phrase is becoming a common term in today’s schools and it is important for parents and educators to have an understanding of not only what the executive functions are, but also how they affect students and what can be done to improve them.

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).

The Specific Executive Functions

There is also much discussion on which skills are considered the specific executive functions, however those generally accepted are as follows. An example of a student with an executive function deficit is also given to illustrate how students can be negatively affected by them.

Inhibition: The ability to control impulses or stop a behavior.

  • Example: Despite previous correction and disapproving glances from classmates, David continues to whine and say “Noooo!” every time the teacher says to take out his spelling folder.

Initiation: The ability to start projects in a timely and adequate manner.

  • Example: Five minutes after you ask her to start writing her spelling sentences, Lizzy is still sitting there with nothing written. When she finally does start her sentences, every sentence begins similarly, such as “I like cake” or “I don’t like to skate.”

Shift (Mental Flexibility): The ability to switch from one activity to another appropriately. It also refers to one’s ability to assimilate new information into previously acquired knowledge.

  • Example: Alex has difficulty transitioning between course subjects during the day.

  • Example: When the Learning Specialist tries to teach Emily a new way to solve a math problem, she can’t seem to understand. Emily always protests, “This is how my teacher taught me” and refuses to learn another way.

Emotional Control: The ability to measure an emotional response and alter the response when the situation calls for it.

  • Example: Whenever Alison is not happy about the task at hand, she begins crying. Despite other students calling her a “cry baby” she continues overreacting.

Self Monitoring: The ability to monitor oneself for appropriate behavior or measure performance to meet expectations.

  • Example: Despite the teacher giving explicit examples on how to create his poster for the project, he turns in a poster that clearly does not meet expectations with no register of the fact that it doesn’t.

Working Memory: The ability to hold information learned and reproduce it when necessary.

  • Example: Even though the teacher has given verbal instructions several times, Devon is unable to recall the instructions to complete the task unless step by step directions are given on the board.

Planning/Organization: The ability to organize oneself in order to complete a task.

  • Example: Ashley knows that she must organize herself and schedule study time two weeks before exam week. While she means well, she loses track of the weeks and ends up studying late on the night before the test.

Categorization/Organization of Materials: The ability to organize the materials needed to complete a task.

  • Example: The usage of folders is completely foreign to Carlos. Each paper he receives is thrown into his backpack joining the leftover lunch from last week. When asked for his homework, he is required to search through his messy desk and then the pile in his backpack with no success.

Note: Attention and concentration are sometimes included among the executive functions, but most often are not. While the main focus of this article is not to boost attention and concentration, developing the skills mentioned above will contribute to a student’s ability to stay focused, concentrate on an activity, and execute a task.

How Can We Help Develop the Executive Functions in Children?

Children with executive function deficits need external cues, prompts and reinforcements to help them acquire and develop these skills. Parental and educator guidance during different situations help model for the student how to appropriately respond to stimulus.

There are also many games and activities that can be used at home and in the classroom to help stimulate growth in these functions. The following list includes ideas for encouraging growth in each of the specific executive functions by laying out a corresponding study skill and an activity.


  • Study Skills: Teach students the phrase, “Stop. Look. Listen.” to encourage them to think before acting or speaking. In tests, teach students to read the directions before and after answering the questions to avoid any impulsive mistakes.
  • Games/Activities: For younger children, the games “Red light/Green light” and “Simon Says” are great games to practice inhibition.


  • Study Skills: Use sand timers or kitchen timers. Set the timer and tell the child to begin within the next minute. Reward positive behavior.
  • Games/Activities: Say the first thing that comes to mind going back and forth with a partner (ie. student 1: dog, student 2: cat, 1: fur, 2: soft, 1: blankets, 2: bed, 1: sleep, etc.). Using the same method, create a story where each person must contribute a sentence quickly to build a story.

Shift (Mental Flexibility)

  • Study Skills: Build on previous information and show children how new rules can work with old information. Make connections between stories.
  • Games/Activities: Give students a theoretical situation that begins like this, “What would you do if…?”After the student answers, add in new twists that require the student to change his or her story several times.

Emotional Control

  • Study Skills: Come up with a “buzz word” for the student that can be used whenever the child is overreacting to remind him/her to control their behavior. Talk through this one so student understands consequences (especially social consequences).
  • Games/Activities: While reading a book, talk through each character’s emotional response. When emotional situations occur in life, ask your child how one should respond.

Self Monitoring

  • Study Skills: Have students work with partners or small groups to help them measure time. Give them blocks of work that must be completed within a certain amount of time. Give students examples of what is expected of them in projects.
  • Games/Activities: Timed games or quizzes online. Cooking (following directions exactly). Extra-curricular activities that require following a sequence correctly or working in a group.

Working Memory

  • Study Skills: Use visual, kinesthetic, and auditory aides. Provide checklists or post-it notes when possible. Always check for understanding of directions when test taking.
  • Games/Activities: Give short verbal directions and have the child complete the tasks in sequence from memory (ie. Go brush your teeth, then wash your face and come downstairs). Another is to show a group of objects to a child, have them close their eyes and hide one object. Child must guess what is missing. Finally, try describing a picture by giving direction of what to draw. The student must recall the directions and draw the picture correctly.


  • Study Skills: Work on setting priorities. Organize agenda, color code projects and set dates for completing projects. Use graphic organizers for writing.
  • Games/Activities: Games that require students to create sequences or plan out how to meet a goal. Play with puzzles and mazes.

Categorization/Organization of Materials

  • Study Skills: Organize the student’s backpack and color code folders for class materials. Ensure that the student keeps an organized desk.
  • Games/Activities: Have the students categorize objects based on certain characteristics they share. Card games like Uno or Blink require students to organize thoughts and cards to play.

While executive functioning deficits are difficult to manage, there are so many ways to develop these skills in everyday life. Many of these behaviors are modeled and developed over the years. Parents and educators must guide and model behaviors in order for children to adequately control themselves.

Games and study skills as mentioned above are extremely helpful, as are extracurricular activities such as sports, art, drama, and dance. Memorizing dance routines in gymnastics, sequences in karate, organizing plays in basketball, exhibiting self-control in playing an instrument and learning to meet a standard in art are all important tools students can use in life.

The more aware adults are of how to develop these skills in children, the greater the possibility that students can overcome an executive function deficit.

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