Executive Functioning

What is Executive Functioning?

Executive Functioning Skills refer to the brain-based, cognitive skills that help us to regulate our behavior, make decisions, and set and achieve goals.

These skills include task initiation and follow through, planning, organization, working memory, performance monitoring, inhibition of impulses, and self-regulation.

The executive functions can be thought of as the “air traffic controller” of the brain.

Executive functions are tied to brain development and do not fully develop until the early to mid-20s.

Individuals with ADHD typically lag behind in the development of these skills (from 1 to 3 years).

What Does Executive Functioning Involve?

Although there are many definitions and models, Executive Functioning essentially involve the following:
-Goal-setting and planning
-Organization and time management
-Flexible use of strategies (a.k.a. cognitive shifting)
-Attention and memory systems that guide learning processes (e.g., working memory)
-Inhibition of impulses
-Emotional control

Common Difficulties with Executive Functioning Skills?

Difficulties with these Executive Functioning skills have been identified as major contributors to both academic and social problems and have been highly linked to both ADHD and Learning Disabilities.

Some of these problems include:
-Holding directions in mind (particularly when complex or multi-step)
-Resisting or delaying impulses
-Monitoring how actions affect others
-Setting goals
-Monitoring school work (e.g., checking for errors)
-Initiating tasks, despite level of interest
-Planning, executing, and monitoring projects or assignments

What is Self-Regulation?

A major struggle, particularly for those with ADHD, involves self-regulation.
Self-regulation can be viewed across three different domains:
Cognitively: ability to focus on academic tasks
Behaviorally: ability to control actions
Emotionally: ability to control emotions

Students are not able to engage in school work consistently and meaningfully if they are dysregulated.

Strategies to Improve Self-Regulation?

Programs like the Zones of Regulation help students develop self-awareness of their regulatory states, and to identify strategies that work well for them (e.g., “regulation breaks”).

Mindfulness plays an important role in many classrooms to help students self-regulate.

Assistive Technology is a great resource for providing individuals with lifelong tools to assist with executive function deficits (e.g., a calendar can be set up on the computer for reminders of assignment deadlines and exam dates for children with difficulties with organization and time management)

Other general recommendations include:
-Graphic organizers
-Visual schedules
-Checklists and “to do” lists
-Schedule a weekly time to clean and organize work space
Break long assignments into chunks


-Book: The Important Role of Executive Functioning and Self-Regulation in ADHD. Dr. Russell Barkley
-(PDF) Ten Tips for Impulse Control. Russell Barkley
-Book: Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents: A Practical Guide to Assessment and Intervention, 2nd Edition, by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare
-Website by Peg Dawson & Richard Guare: Smart but Scattered Kids