Executive Function: What It Is, Why It Matters

Recent advances in medicine allow researchers to peer into the minds of children in ways never before imagined. At the forefront of this research is a constellation of mental abilities called executive function (EF) that directly influences everything from school readiness to how happy and successful a child will eventually become in life. Previously thought to be an abstract skill set that was fairly stable throughout the lifespan, scientists now know that development of EF begins during infancy and progresses through our mid to late 20s (Hinshaw and Scheffler 2014).

These cognitive skills act as the “brain manager,” coordinating how the developing mind learns to think, organize, plan for the future, and regulate emotions. More than any single set of skills EF influences every aspect of day-to-day living, from performance in school and recreational activities, to emotional stability, navigating social situations and building personal relationships. Early childhood executive function on its own has been linked to adolescent and adult social competence (Mischel et al., 2010), with one study even connecting preschool executive function to adult measures of health, wealth, and the likelihood of getting in trouble with the law. (Moffitt et al., 2011). Of course, not every child who struggles with executive function experiences lifelong difficulty; these are just trends across groups.

Most importantly, an understanding EF helps professionals and parents guide everything from common-sense behavioral management in young children to supporting teenagers as they mature into adults. Executive function explains the link between seemingly disparate topics on the minds of anyone working with children nowadays. Terms like mindfulness, resilience, grit, mindset, and even ADHD all turn out to relate to its development.

Developing the Skills to Manage Everyday Life

Just as a business requires someone to synchronize the activity of its employees, the brain must manage our moment to moment experiences. One part of the brain, the frontal lobes, integrates what we know with what we encounter and how we respond. Executive function encompasses the underlying set of cognitive skills required to coordinate thinking, drive learning, monitor behavior, identify mistakes, plan for the future, and defines a host of other self-regulatory tasks essential to everyday life.

Monitoring executive function helps us meet the needs of children wherever they are in their development throughout life. The implications begin early as, amazingly enough, preschoolers with strong EF appear more likely to succeed academically all the way through college (Mischel et al. 2010). The following framework, (adapted from Brown 2006), defines executive function as six related skill groups:

· Attention management: The ability to sustain focus when challenged, shift attention, and avoid hyperfocus (becoming too absorbed) when engaged in an enjoyable task.

· Action management: The ability to control behavior, self-monitor, and learn from mistakes.

· Task management: The ability to organize, plan, prioritize, and manage time.

· Information management: The ability to remember, organize and retrieve information.

· Emotional management: The ability to experience emotions without impulsively acting on them.

· Effort management: The ability to persevere when activities are challenging, to sustain focus and work efficiently.

While much of EF is genetically programmed, research suggests that it is also influenced by upbringing and environment. In other words, EF can potentially be enhanced or hindered depending on the choices adults make. One of the most important decisions is protecting open-ended free play in our busy tech-driven lives, not only to let kids be kids but because free play itself guides the development of executive function (Barnett et al., 2008). Imaginative games, for example, require for a start working memory to keep track of the details (We’re going to the moon.), cognitive flexibility to follow along with changes (Now we’re pirates.), and impulse control (Wait, I wanted to stay out in space.). Studies in the emerging field of EF have found potential benefits from a range of activities including exercise, games requiring strategy and concentration (such as chess), curricula that directly teach aspects of executive function, and the practice of mindfulness.

Understanding EF also allows parents and teachers to make skillful choices and reject misleading ideas that otherwise might create needless worry. It sheds light on the risk of pushing academics too soon (Hinshaw and Sheffler, 2014), and why technology has potential benefits but a distinct downside when under-monitored by adults (Christakis, 2004, Swing et al. 2010). Screen time looks like intense concentration from the outside, but provides constantly shifting content that in reality encourages little sustained attention at all. Executive function also explains countless aspects of child behavior, such as why a toddler cannot relate delayed punishment to a current misbehavior, or why teenagers often fail to consider long-sighted consequences of their actions.

Self-management Across the Lifespan

There is a typical developmental path to mature executive function similar to language, motor, and social abilities. As it progresses, for example, toddlers begin to learn impulse control, and preschoolers gain the capacity to take others’ perspective. By school age, skills expand around memory, organizing and planning and sustaining attention, all critical for classroom learning as well as integral to reading, writing and math.

Adolescents strive for independence and need opportunities to try things on their own, but still lack mature executive function. Although puberty brings a burst of cognitive development, long term thinking, planning and impulse control are not fully grown for many more years. Teenagers may not see the potential implications of getting a tattoo on their face or texting a risqué photo. They may have the intellectual capacity to tackle intense high school academics without an equal ability to handle the pressures emotionally or logistically. While it is important to encourage exploration and growth, adult guidance must continue until teens prove responsible. Executive function, a basis of forethought and planning, does not typically become fully established until adulthood.

Relatedly, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) affects areas of the brain responsible for executive function, explaining the wide-ranging impact of this common childhood condition. Individuals with ADHD rarely have difficulty with attention or hyperactivity alone, almost always struggling with a larger range of executive function skills. To fully address ADHD, therefore, is to see it as a developmental delay in executive function that can impact not only academics but social relations, emotional well-being, and even physical health, where ADHD has been linked to concerns including obesity. Remediating for executive function deficits across all areas of life, as they evolve over time, is the core to comprehensive care.

What does all this mean for those of us who live and work with children? While executive function skills are largely defined by genetics, we can support their growth through the choices we make. Awareness of the role of executive function in family scheduling, discipline and in the classroom eases decision making and helps children feel more successful. For anyone living with ADHD these guidelines become even more vital, as the heart of successful management relies on anticipating the far-reaching effects of executive function.

Recognizing this one developmental path guides us at home, in the classroom and as a community. For children or adults, executive function relates to our capacity to learn and to overcome the unavoidable challenges and stresses of daily life. Taking time to support these vital abilities in ourselves and in our children allows entire families to thrive.

Article adapted from Mindful Parenting for ADHD, by Mark Bertin MD, copyright 2015 by New Harbinger Press

Brown, T. E. 2006. Inside the ADD mind. ADDitude Magazine, April/May.

Christakis, D. A., F. J. Zimmerman, D. L. DiGiuseppe, and C. A. McCarty. 2004. Early television exposure and subsequent attentional problems in children. Pediatrics 113: 708–713.

Hinshaw, S. P., and R. M. Scheffler. 2014. The ADHD Explosion: Myths, Medication, Money, and Today’s Push for Performance. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mischel, W, O Ayduk, M Berman, BJ Casey, I Gotlib, J Jonides, E Kross, T Teslovich, N Wilson, V Zayas, and Y Shoda, 2010, ‘Willpower’ over the life span: decomposing self-regulation. Social Cognitive and Affective Neurosicence online, 2010.

Moffitt, T. E., L. Arseneault, D. Belsky, N. Dickson, R. J. Hancox, H. Harrington, et al. 2011. A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 108: 2693–2698.

Swing, E. L., D. A. Gentile, C. A. Anderson, and D. A. Walsh. 2010. Television and video game exposure and the development of attention problems. Pediatrics 126: 214–221.