Executive Function: More Than Meets the Eye


Executive functioning (EF) is a burgeoning research area for psychologists, neuroscientists, and educators. For some, EF might seem like the cognitive science flavor of the week. But for others, its study is uncovering a significant piece of the puzzle for how we learn, feel, and act. And those latter folks have a lot to show for it.

In fact, the mainstream interest in EF that has developed over the last two decades may be best summarized by typing “executive functioning” into the search bar on Amazon.com. Here you’ll find a wealth of books illustrating scattered, messy, and forgetful youth. In these works, authors offer parents and educators a pathway to better understand those children that forget their homework, fidget through class, and get lost in thought when they’re supposed to be finishing chores.

Yet while the disorganized adolescent is certainly one component of executive functions in action (or inaction), it merely scratches the surface of what research is uncovering. And with business booming in the EF world, so to speak, it is now more important than ever to take a step back and examine some of the ways that EF research is being applied in classrooms and households.

What is EF?

Executive functioning is an umbrella term that includes the cognitive processes of attention, self-regulation, mental flexibility (the ability to transition from or between one thought or action to another), and working memory [1].

We use EF when we do mental math to calculate a waiter’s tip; when we remember to raise our hand instead of blurting out an answer; when we attend to a science lecture; and when we describe the same event from the varying perspectives of multiple people.

Studies continue to uncover just how entrenched these processes are throughout the lifespan. EF is linked to several positive developmental outcomes, such as school readiness in early childhood [2] and the development of both crystallized and fluid intelligence in middle childhood [3].

Weak EF skills, on the other hand, go far beyond a messy backpack. Low EF has been found to predict difficulties with mathematics [4], externalizing problem behaviors in middle childhood [5], and harsh parenting in adulthood [6]. Challenges with EF also appear to play a role in a number of developmental disorders, such as ADHD and Autism [7].

Imaging studies show that the frontal lobe of the brain is the EF powerhouse, with the most rapid development of these skills occurring in early childhood [8]. While all children are born with the capacity to develop their EF, actual skill growth requires some degree of explicit practice and modeling. For this reason, much of the mainstream EF literature is geared toward K-8 parents and educators. The Harvard Center on the Developing Child, for example, offers a variety of strategies to support children’s EF growth. Picture sorting games for toddlers, memory games like Simon Says for kindergarteners, and fantasy role-play throughout elementary school serve this purpose.

Next Step: Step Back

There is little doubt that executive function skills exist or that they provide an important cognitive foundation for development. But a critical lens is essential when we begin to take empirical EF knowledge and apply it to youth.

In particular, let us tread lightly when we make a qualitative assumption about a child’s skill level, or how to improve it.

How can we be mindful of this caveat in daily practice? A good start is to question the tendency for EF skills to be dichotomized as high or low, good or bad. Of course, some children have different EF skills than others. But the growing instinct to take the attentive, obedient child and the fidgety, distracted child and fit them into either side of this dichotomy risks overlooking important individual contexts.

Imagine middle school student Joe. Joe lives in a high-crime neighborhood but attends a high-resource school in the next town over. As a result of his home environment, Joe has learned to self-regulate in ways that heighten his vigilance and attention to seemingly unimportant details. He is hyper aware of sights and sounds in the distance that, at home, imply an approaching stranger. In his classroom, however, Joe’s attention and self-regulation skills are less fitting, as the distant sound he is attending to instead of his math lesson is simply another student walking the hallway. Compared to his peers, who do not navigate such contrasting environments each day, Joe’s EF skill level concerns his teacher.

In this scenario, Joe is functional at home (high EF) yet distractible and inattentive at school (low EF). And if we can only fit Joe into the dichotomy of high or low EF, instead of on a fluid spectrum, his low-EF presentation at school is likely to make that call.

The factors that engender the presentation of high or low EF skills is an important distinction to make. Here, Joe’s distraction is different from his classmate Jane’s, which is a result of her ADHD. Accordingly, the support system that each needs is also different.

A crucial step toward accurately qualitatively assessing children’s EF, especially in schools, is therefore to attend to the interactions between the person and the world within which a child is situated. Before we call in the specialist, before we assign remediation, before we purchase the neurotraining software, let’s ask such questions as what are the social rules, values, and stressors that this child is navigating among?

Because for some children, a workbook of puzzles and concentration exercises ordered from Amazon may be enormously helpful. But for others, a consideration of context, resources, and resiliency is the better route.

1. Best, J.R. & Miller, P.H. (2010). A developmental perspective on executive function. Child Development, 81(6), 1641-1660.
2. Blair, C. & Razza, R.P. (2007). Relating effortful control, executive function, and false belief understanding to emerging math and literacy ability in kindergarten. Child Development, 78(2), 647-663.
3. Brydges, C.R., Reid, C.L., Fox, A.M. & Anderson, M. (2012). A unitary executive function predicts intelligence in children. Intelligence, 40(5), 458-469
4. Toll, S.W.M, Van der Ven, S.H.G, Kroesbergen, E.H. & Van Luit, J.E.H. (2011). Executive functions as predictors of math learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 44(6), 521-532.
5. Woltering, S., Lishak, V., Hodgson, N., Granic, I. & Zelazo, P.D. (2016). Executive function in children with externalizing and comorbid internalizing behavior problems. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 57(1), 30-38.
6. Deater-Deckard, K., Wang, Z., Chen, N. & Ann Bell, M. (2012). Maternal executive function, harsh parenting, and child conduct problems. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 53(10), 1084-1091.
7. Craig, F., Margari, F., Legrottaglie, A.R., Palumbi, R., de Giambattista, C. & Margari, L. (2016). A review of executive function deficits in autism spectrum disorder and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment,12, 1191-1202.
8. Brydges, C.R., Reid, C.L., Fox, A.M. & Anderson, M. (2012). A unitary executive function predicts intelligence in children. Intelligence, 40(5), 458-469.

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5 Responses to Executive Function: More Than Meets the Eye

  1. Laura Shaw says:

    While I agree with the overall point of the article, I find it rather sad that the frontal lobe is still touted by academics as the ” EF powerhouse”. It’s imperative that educators begin to understand the role that subcortical structures (BG and cerebellum) play in the development of EF as movement is inextricably linked to the development of EF. Until educators begin to realize that, they will remain stuck in a dualistic perspective of mind and body in which the mind is perceived as a container to be filled. As neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert suggests, we weren’t born to think, we were born to move. Having children perform mental gymnastics is not enough for optimal EF development.

    • Lindsay Clements says:

      Hi Laura,

      Thanks for reading and for your comment! I definitely agree that optimal EF development doesn’t stem from academic tasks and cognitive exercises alone. Both neuroscience and psychology theory (e.g. Vygotsky) as well as qualitative work with parents and teachers emphasize that children need physical exercise, fantasy play, and independent trial-and-error experiences to drive EF growth.

      I think you also touch upon one of the big debates in EF research, which is the role of the frontal lobes (in particular the prefrontal cortex) in driving EF. Both imaging studies and brain lesion research implicate a number of brain regions involved in EF, including, as you mention, the basil ganglia and the cerebellum. While there is not a 1:1 correspondence between EF and the frontal lobes, I do find that they tend to be most consistently implicated in EF processing. Of course, that may be merely a reflection of how broad EF research has spread as of yet. As imaging technology improves, I anticipate that we will learn significantly more about how intricate interactions between the prefrontal cortext, subcortical regions, and temporal structures engender EF growth.

  2. Jennifer says:

    I truly wish someone would have explained this to me when my daughter was diagnosed with ADHD at 7. She showed these sorts of symptoms then and I thought it was just part of the ADHD and not something that we could sort of steer in another direction. Now she is a freshman in high school that is like a fish out of water because she can’t seem to function in all of her classes. She forgets work. Her backpack is a disaster, as is her bedroom. She loses at least one set of earbuds with a mic (required for her Spanish class) at least once a month. She can’t function to get ready for school in the morning without me having to hound her constantly to brush hair and teeth and put on deodorant. We are both constantly frustrated. She has a 504 plan, but even up to that point I never knew that this was an addressable issue. Only over the last month have I been reading about lacking executive skills and what that means. I am positive she also has dysgraphia. So all the times I had to explain to doctors and teachers that she just couldn’t seem for some reason to put those ideas from her head onto paper, nobody said “That is called dysgraphia and this is how we can handle that” instead I got looked at like I had two heads and everyone seemed stumped. I am spreading the word as fast as I can so another parent does not have to go through what I did and now be at a point where we are scrambling to get her to the point of functioning she should be at.

    • Lindsay Clements says:


      Thank you for sharing your daughter’s story. I hear your frustration with the ongoing journey you are on to best support her learning and I share your wish that this type of research/understanding were more widely available when she was younger. The pace at which research and publications nudge along is not always conducive to being proactive on the parent/teacher/ground level!

      You may have come across this resource already, but I wanted to share that I think highly of the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) curriculum guidelines. I used many of the UDL resources in my previous work with students with ADHD and learning disabilities. Their website (http://www.udlcenter.org/implementation/examples) has tools and tangible ideas that you and/or your daughter may be interested in.

  3. Good job. Much needed perspective on perhaps the single most important issue in learning. Thanks for helping those who are willing to dig deeper for genuine understanding. Too rare.

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