What is Executive Function?

What is Executive Functio: coofee mug on a pile of papers on a messy desk on top on bottom a hand holding a pen over a planner

Imagine, for a moment, the world as it is.

As we and the people and objects around us move through space, our senses feed ridiculous amounts of data to our brains.  Textures, colors, lights, sounds, smells assault us from every direction—billions of bits of information every second.  Action and inaction reshape the flow of information, but there’s nothing we can do to slow it down.  It’s everywhere, it’s constant, and it’s so very, very loud.

Luckily, our brains have evolved to ignore most of this information, and through the practice that life gives us every day, we learn to further sift and prioritize it into two streams: the useful information that helps us make meaningful decisions, and the rest, which we never even realize is there.

What Is Executive Function?

Our brain’s ability to perform this task efficiently is known as executive function, and we’re born really, really bad at it.  These skills begin to develop in the first few days of our lives. Then, under the best possible circumstances, instruction and opportunities encountered during the preschool years (between 3 and 5) prompt enormous growth in executive function, which slows but continues upward as we refine those skills through childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood.

In those early years, ideal executive function growth shows up as the ability to sit still, carry out and remember multi-step processes, pay attention to what’s in front of us, and play cooperatively with others.  Over time, it creates a feedback loop that strengthens these skills into impulse control, emotional intelligence, and the development of values, which in turn become the ability to maintain a job and friendships, plan and direct the course of our lives, and experience the world as something fulfilling and worthwhile.

Deficits in Executive Function

However, few of us have the benefit of the best possible circumstances.  Many people have ADHD, which is, by definition, a deficit in executive function.  Chronic anxiety can cause the brain to deprioritize executive function as it prepares to face perceived threats.  Depression prioritizes negative emotions and leaves the brain with fewer resources to process information.

Deficits in executive function appear in some or all of the following areas:

  • Working Memory: Our ability to hold information in our heads and shape it into something useful.  Working memory is used for everything from remembering to write an assignment in a planner to listening to a statement, interpreting it in the context of a larger conversation, and responding appropriately.
  • Inhibitory Control: Our ability to delay gratification, follow classroom rules and expectations, and ignore our impulses to kick, punch, or bite people who surprise or offend us.
  • Mental Flexibility: Our ability to navigate the line between staying on track with an idea or activity and changing course when a creative solution is needed.  Mental flexibility allows us to notice when our approach isn’t working and to make the adjustments that allow us to finish the task anyway.  In higher levels of development, it allows us to move between adherence to rules and setting those rules aside to maintain integrity with our values.

Improving Executive Function

There is good news, though.  Executive function can be improved through practice.  In teenagers and adults, goal-setting, planning, writing down and reviewing important information, maintaining daily routines, meditating, playing sports, and participating in other group activities, like theater or dance, can help to build executive function skills.  Teenagers should be encouraged to try one or two of these activities at first, and add more as they begin to see improved results.

Adults can help by modeling these activities and prompting kids to follow through with commitments they have made to themselves.  Breaking through adaptive habits can be difficult and frustrating, so patience and a willingness to listen and adjust can go a long way.

For more information, check out this excellent guide from Harvard University’s Center for the Developing Child.