Executive Function

The “Executive Function Skill” is a hot, new phrase being bounced around schools and psychology offices, but not many people know what it means. Not to be confused with Study Skills, Executive Functioning refers to 9 core cognitive processes that are necessary for controlling our behavior. They act as the “manager” portion of our brain, located primarily in the frontal lobes, enabling us to think critically and self-regulate our behavior.

Recently, Executive Function has gained attention because of its relationship to neuropsychology and the cognitive processes of children (and many adults as well). The following provides a brief overview of the 9 Executive Functioning Skills, and the importance of each as it relates to your student’s learning and overall cognitive development.


This skill helps get us motivated to work, and find the resources to continue working. Typically, students who are weak in initiating work are exceptional procrastinators. They are aware of what they need to do and how they need to do it, but they just don’t want to do it, whatever the consequences may be.


This is the ability to stop ourselves doing something, especially if we know it’s something we shouldn’t be doing. Students who are weak in this skill are often seen as impulsive, making hasty decisions or acting unpredictably. This is a particularly important skill to develop, as there are always times when we need to stop and think before acting, so as not to do or say something we will regret later.


Shifting, or transitioning to new tasks, is another common area of weakness for students. They may have a hard time moving on to a new task or assignment if the current one hasn’t been finished. There is a fine line between struggling to shift to new tasks and determination to finish a project. While determination is often a desirable trait to have, a student with trouble shifting tasks also has difficulty adapting to changes without major distress, or is not flexible with their plans in the face of obstacles.

Working Memory

Working memory is the ability to remember information for short-term use. It’s kind of like a little notepad in our brain where we jot down trivial pieces of information that we’ll need for immediate use. Students who struggle with multi-step math problems, or have a tough time with mental math are usually weak in this area.


Planning is exactly what it sounds like – our ability to manage tasks by setting goals, making checklists, and breaking down projects or tasks into more manageable sub-tasks. If a student is a weak planner, they may read the instructions for an assignment several times but fail to see the steps they should take to go from start to finish.


Again, this one is a little self-explanatory. Students might throw their work into their backpack, rather than keeping it nice and tidy in binders and folders. When their schoolwork isn’t organized, things don’t run as efficiently as they should. That means assignments and projects will take longer than they need to; they’ll be more prone to forgetting things; and they may get frustrated trying to figure out the next step of the project.

Time Management

Time management is closely related to shifting. Students struggle to allot appropriate time for each task, or they find it difficult to stick to a timeline. I’ve seen this first-hand tutoring math students. They may not be familiar with shortcuts for solving problems, so they spend too long on a problem. Another common situation is not developing templates for repetitive procedures, which again costs students unnecessary time. Much like organizing, time management really boils down to how efficiently a student can complete their assignment.


Monitoring is similar to self-awareness. It’s our brain’s quality control system, helping us judge the quality (and quantity) of our work based on certain standards. Students who struggle with monitoring have a weakness in analyzing their failures, so they may not realize why they did poorly on a test. By learning from their mistakes, they are able to more easily identify their weaknesses and improve the quality of their future work.

Emotional Control

Emotional control is the executive function that gets the most attention, and for good reason. This relates to how well the student responds to stressful situations. Among other things, it is how well they deal with anxiety, how they cope with disappointment, and how they handle anger and frustration.

The differences between Study Skills and Executive Functioning Skills are subtle but nonetheless important to note. Study Skills tutoring focuses more on providing students with tools and strategies for studying – almost exclusively for school-related purposes – whereas Executive Functioning tutoring centers around day-to-day task management and behavioral control. There is some overlap, but with Executive Functioning Skills tutoring, students strive to become better thinkers, not better studiers.

Be on the lookout for future posts where I explore some of these Executive Functioning Skills in more depth.

If you think your student may have issues with some of their Executive Functioning Skills, or general Study Skills, consider tutoring to help them become more academically independent and develop good habits that will carry over into every aspect of their life. Click here to schedule an appointment at Learning Ascent now.  Click here for Homework Help resources..



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