What exactly IS executive functioning?

Executive functioning (EF) has turned into a buzzword lately. So, what exactly is it? There is a lot of discussion on its exact definition. Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child summarizes it as the “mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways…” (Harvard, 2019a).

EF is a complex concept with a complex definition. It requires multiple parts of the brain, particularly the frontal lobe, but also including other areas (UCSF, 2019). Likewise, individuals who have EF challenges often experience challenges with multiple areas of EF, not just one. Much like the precise definition of EF is up for debate, there are some different views on the areas of executive functioning. Typically, the following areas are assessed or considered:


  • Developing an idea or timeline on how to complete a task or goal
    Organization: creating and maintaining a method for information or objects

Time Management

  • Knowing the time needed to complete an activity, how long to spend on an activity, and sense of a deadline

Working Memory

  • Recalling information while completing a task, use previous information at present or future


  • Making observations and completing self-reflection based on performance, such as “What did I do well? What could I improve?”

Response Inhibition

  • Stopping and thinking prior to acting

Emotional Control

  • Maintaining emotions appropriately for the demands of the environment or activity

Sustained Attention

  • Focusing on something until completion without becoming distracted or off-task

Task Initiation

  • Starting an activity within an appropriate period of time


  • Making changes as needed to previously established plans

Goal-directed Persistence

  • Continuing to work toward a goal despite other distractions and demands

(Dawson & Guare, 2018)

EF skills impact children and teens in a variety of ways. They might struggle to get started on homework or chores, become distracted, forget particular steps of an instruction, lack motivation to get started, or demonstrate difficulty managing their emotions.

EF skills often take until the mid-20s to fully develop, with significant growth beginning as early as ages 3-5 and continuing into childhood and adolescence (Harvard, 2019b).

What should you do if you sense your child has challenges with EF?

First, discuss with your child’s treating therapist or your community clinic care coordinator. They will be able to guide you in the best direction for your child.

As with many skill areas, modeling is a great teaching method for a variety of concepts. Have your children help you make a grocery list, decide on this week’s menu, and create a technology-free “study central” at your home, just for a few examples!

There is also a lot of great reading material on executive functioning skills. Understood.org is an excellent website, as well as books like Smart but Scattered by Peg Dawson & Richard Guare and Late, Lost, and Unprepared by Joyce Cooper-Kahn & Laurie C. Dietzel.

Dawson, P. & Guare, R. (2018). Executive skills in children and adolescents: A practical guide to assessment and intervention, 3rd edition. New York, New York: The Guilford Press.

Harvard University Center on the Developing Child. (2019a). Executive function & self-regulation. Retrieved from https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/executive-function/

Harvard University Center on the Developing Child (2019b). InBrief: Executive function. Retrieved from https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/inbrief-executive-function/

UCSF Memory & Aging Center (2019). Executive functions. Retrieved from https://memory.ucsf.edu/executive-functions