Executive Function

Deep Dive

Executive Function is an umbrella term for the complex cognitive processes that serve ongoing and goal-directed behavior. They play a role in our ability to perform activities such as…

  • Planning

  • Organizing

  • Strategizing

  • Paying attention to and remembering details

  • Managing time and space


Deborah Phillips, Ph.D., a professor working at Georgetown University, compares executive functioning skills to those skills needed by an air traffic controller at a busy airport, managing arrivals and departures of a multitude of planes on different runways simultaneously.

Check out this video where Dr. Phillips

expands on this topic...

There are many cognitive processes that have been described which support executive function, and many ways to categorize them or break them down. In general, most researchers include these three overarching skill sets:

Learn more about “The Three Areas of Executive Function” from

The Understood Team...


the ability to keep information in mind and then use it in some way.



the ability to ignore distractions and resist temptation.


the ability to think about something in more than

one way.

Example: a student might use this skill to read a passage on a test, and then use it to answer questions.

Example: A student might use this skill to keep from blurting out an answer in class.

Example: A student might use this skill to answer a math problem in two ways or to find relationships between different concepts.

We ALL have variability in our executive function skills, strengths and weaknesses! To explore your own profile and apply this information to what you know about yourself, complete this Executive Skills Questionnaire for Adults (from Peg Dawson and Richard Guare).

Executive function skills develop gradually and at different rates for every person. They are also hard to develop when there is a lack of environmental or caregiver support (modeling and practice are important!). Research from Harvard describes how children are not born with proficient abilities to stay focused, multi-task and follow directions. Rather, they have the potential to develop these capabilities given the experiences they are provided during infancy, early childhood and all through adolescence (to check out the full article, Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System, click here). 


Our role as educators requires us to understand that time and maturation is needed. It is important for us to understand expectations for our students at different stages of development. But it is also important for us to remember our critical role in supporting and nurturing the development of these skills!

Check it Out!

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The prefrontal cortex, where many of the foundational cognitive processes that support executive function develop is the last part of the brain to mature. This maturation continues well into the twenties, with the most 

critical changes happening from ages 8 through 16! Unlike other parts of the brain that develop automatically, over time, the circuits that direct executive functions require appropriate stimuli (or experiences) to develop appropriate response capabilities. Without these experiences, these skills do not develop.


Most children, and adults, struggle at one time or another with planning, organizing and follow-through (activities that rely heavily on executive function skills). Stress can have a major impact on our ability to “access” our executive function skills (think about our students experiencing a traumatic event, living with toxic stress, or even a student who experiences ongoing math anxiety).


Let's dive deeper...

There are students who may exhibit what is termed “executive dysfunction”. We know executive dysfunction can be a common

occurrence in students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, specific learning disabilities, autism, and mild or traumatic brain injury. But it is also seen with more frequency in students identified as gifted and talented! It can also run in families. 


Signs of “executive dysfunction” can be seen at any age, but tend to become more apparent as students move through the early elementary grades and the demands of more independently completing schoolwork increases. This is often the time we see red flags or signals that there may be a problem that we need to address!

What are some red flags for recognizing executive function challenges in students you work with?

These resources can help you think about your students and where they struggle...

  • Executive Function 101”, an e-Book available through the National Center for Learning Disabilities, has a great summary of 8 behavioral categories associated with executive function, and what this looks like in children who struggle.


  • Watch this short video demonstrating what a day in the life of a 6th grader with executive dysfunction may look like.


The Effect of Executive Functioning Challenges on Behavior, Emotions and Social Relationships 

(Summarized from Executive Function 101)

In addition to having an impact on academic success, challenges with executive functioning skills can affect behavior and emotions. A lack of motivation is a key sign that a student may be experiencing challenges in executive functioning. Frustration is also a natural outcome, as often students do not know why they are having the difficulties that they are. At the far end of the continuum, you may see meltdown or breakdowns. We know that impulse control and emotional control are highly correlated. Students with these challenges also experience a range of problems in their friendships, peer relationships and other social interactions. Sharing, turn-taking, picking up on subtle social cues, staying on task and remaining attentive in class can be difficult for students who struggle with these skills. Making and keeping friends can be impacted.

Socially competent students need to learn how to:

  • Read body language and nonverbal communication;

  • Stop and think before reacting;

  • Think through a situation and recognize others’ points of view;

  • Show flexibility in the face of changed plans and unexpected situations;

  • Anticipate what will happen as a result of their words or actions

  • Take responsibility for their behavior.

Executive dysfunction can negatively impact all of these skills and students may need opportunities for explicit instruction and supportive strategies to mitigate these challenges.

Designing Educational Environments that Support our Students...


How do we help our students with needs in this area? 

  • Good teaching [and by that we mean a well-designed UDL classroom] can effectively support a range of student’s skills or challenges with executive functioning.

  • Identifying specific needs and then looking for strategies to support these areas of challenge until a student can be successful. For some students, these strategies are “scaffolds” that can be decreased over time or brought out when needed again. 

  • For some students with underlying neurological deficits some of these areas may always be challenging and may need life-long support. For these students, our goal is to help them understand their needs, identify what work for them, and how to access the tools they need, when they need them.


Something to keep in mind: Academic success in our 21st-century schools is increasingly linked with a student’s mastery of a wide range of skills that rely on their use of underlying executive function skills. While we continue to rapidly expand knowledge, this can result  in what is referred to as an “overstuffed curriculum”. We recognize the need to prepare students to more effectively analyze, create, and question...and not memorize and regurgitate. We know that success in tomorrow’s workforce will depend on critical thinking skills and building the ability of our learners to make complex decisions using new and ever-changing information.

[Edutopia (www.edutopia.org) is another great site with information and resources about executive function. Here’s the link to the article where this information comes from, “Improving Executive Function: Teaching Challenges and Opportunites”]. 

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More things to

think about...

How does this tie in to what we know about the UDL framework?

How does increasing access to digital supports help us bypass the need to learn facts and procedures by rote?

The UDL Guidelines are a great place to find strategies that help our students develop, internalize, advocate for, and use strategies that support their executive function. A student who is developing as an “Expert Learner” is really a student who is developing their executive function to their full potential!


Think about...

  • Providing as many opportunities as you can to apply learning (e.g. using authentic and/or personally meaningful activities; providing formative assessment and feedback throughout the learning activity).

  • Providing explicit opportunities to model and practice using skills like planning, organizing, prioritizing, reviewing, and self-monitoring. 

  • Structuring activities, with opportunity for group collaboration and open-ended discussions, that involve making predictions, solving a variety of types of problems, pursuing inquiries, analyzing what information they need, considering how to gain skills or knowledge needed to reach the goal.

Strategies & Tools

for Diverse Learners

We have organized the tools and strategies in our Open Access AT FlipKit based on FOUR main categories and descriptions, identified in Executive Function 101! [the following information is summarized from the e-Book]

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Organizing & Prioritizing

  • Homework (writing down assignments correctly, bringing home materials needed to complete homework, completing it on time and remembering to turn it in).

  • Managing long-term projects (keeping track of many details and managing multiple elements of their projects simultaneously).

  • Studying (organizing class notes, homework and other materials to prepare for tests and quizzes).

  • Producing (produce cohesive, integrated, analytical compositions that are well organized and prioritize important details).

Shifting & Thinking Flexibly

  • Reading requires a student to go back and forth between the major themes and supporting details and to sift and sort information while reading.

  • Writing requires balancing important concepts and main ideas with the supporting details a student wants to communicate.

  • Math involves shifting between word meanings, procedures and operations and to do something differently if one approach is not working.

  • Science and History requires students to use context clues to prioritize and focus on the most relevant information.

  • Foreign language learning requires students to shift between their native language and the language they are learning.

Accessing Working Memory

Signs a student might be struggling:

  • Abandoning activities before completion.

  • Appearing to daydream.

  • Not completing assignments.

  • Forgetting what they wanted to say.

  • Not recalling the steps in an activity.

  • Struggling with decoding skills.

Read more about working memory in the article, "20 Facts You Must KNow About Working Memory" by Connie Malamed.


  • Recognizing when to use a specific strategy.

  • Recognizing how to use a specific strategy.

  • Being able to judge the effectiveness of a strategy.

  • Adjusting strategies in relation to the task at hand.