Overview of Executive Function

Executive Function (EF) skills are the “how” of learning (focus, remembering, planning, shifting), and the content is the “what” of learning (reading, math, science concepts). In other words, EF is important for USING your intelligence.

Executive Function brain-based skills are involved in the deliberate, goal-directed control of attention, thought, emotion, motivation, and actionAt the same time, EF skills support resilience, learning, problem-solving, and decision making. EF skills allow for sensitive and pro-social behavior in children and adults.

The Air Traffic Control of the Brain

Executive Function (EF) skills are often called the air traffic control of the brain — they help to monitor, plan, control distraction, manage incoming information, and respond calmly to a sudden change in plans. For example, at a busy airport, some planes must land and others take off at the same time. However, there is only so much room on the ground and in the air and this airspace has to be managed. This is like what our brain must do – the human brain regulates the flow of information, keeps us focused on tasks, and creates mental priorities. Just like an air traffic control system at an airport, our EF skills help us in our day-to-day functioning. It keeps our “airport” – aka, daily life – running smoothly and on time. EF is intertwined in everything we do!

Executive Function Development

While children are not born with Executive Function (EF) skills, they do possess the ability to develop EF skills, and the acquisition of these skills is a fundamental part of healthy human development.

The graph on the left shows the general trends typically seen with Executive Function development: rapid growth in early childhood, a peak in the mid-twenties, followed by a slight decline as we age. It is important to note, however, that there are individual differences within each age group.  There are also things that can be done to maintain certain EF skills as a person ages.

The Three Executive Function Skills

Executive Function (EF) is the set of skills that help the brain organize and act on information. These are the skills that enable us to pay attention, plan, remember things, prioritize, and stay on task. EF includes three (3) skills:

Working Memory

Important for holding information in mind and using it to guide actions. For example, keeping a question in mind in order to formulate an answer.

Cognitive Flexibility

Important for problem solving and perspective-taking. For example, considering someone else’s perspective on a situation, or a different way to solve a problem.

Impulse or Inhibitory Control

Important for ignoring distractions and resisting impulsive behaviors. For example, paying attention to a teacher and resisting a side conversation with a friend.

EF skills are not only able to be taught and learned. They have also been shown to predict important developmental outcomes, such as: Learning Readiness, Academic Achievement, Graduation Rates, Social Functioning, Criminal Convictions, and Mental and Physical Health

For a breakdown of Executive Function Development by Ages and Stages, click here