What Are Executive Functions?

Deficits in executive function can make it more difficult to plan, prioritize, organize, pay attention, remember details, and control emotional reactions.. Photo © Microsoft

What Are Executive Functions and How Do They Affect a Student's Learning?

Executive functions are basically the management system of the brain. These mental functions work together to help us organize and manage the many tasks in our daily life. Impairments in our executive functions, which are thought to involve the frontal lobes of the brain, can have a major impact on our ability to perform such tasks as planning, prioritizing, organizing, paying attention to and remembering details, and controlling our emotional reactions.

The best way to explain the role of executive functions is that it is similar to a conductor’s role within an orchestra. The conductor manages, directs, organizes and integrates each member of the orchestra. He cues each musician, so they know when to begin to play, how fast or slow to play, how loud or soft to play and when to stop playing. Without the conductor, the music would not flow as smoothly or sound as beautiful.

Executive Functions and ADHD

An individual with ADHD may have impairment in several areas of executive functioning. Thomas E. Brown, PhD, a clinical psychologist and leading researcher on executive functions, identifies six clusters of cognitive functions that constitute a way of conceptualizing executive functions.

Activation: Organizing, Prioritizing and Getting Started on Tasks

A student with deficits in this area of executive functioning has difficulty getting school materials organized, distinguishing between relevant and nonrelevant information, anticipating and planning for future events, estimating the time needed to complete tasks, and struggles to simply get started on a task.

Focus: Focusing, Maintaining, and Shifting Attention

A student who is easily distracted misses important information provided in class. He is distracted not only by things around him in the classroom but also by his own thoughts. He has difficulty shifting attention when necessary and can get stuck on a thought, perseverating only on that topic.

Effort: Regulating Alertness, Sustaining Effort, Processing Speed

A student who has a hard time regulating alertness may become drowsy when he has to sit still and be quiet in order to listen to a lecture or read material that isn’t very interesting and stimulating. It is not that he is overtired, rather he simply can’t sustain his alertness unless he is actively engaged. In addition, the speed at which a student takes in and understands information can affect school performance. Some students with ADHD process information very slowly, while others may have trouble slowing down enough to process information accurately.

Emotion: Managing Frustrations and Regulating Emotions

A student with impairments in this area of executive functioning may have a very low tolerance for frustration and be extremely sensitive to criticism. Difficult emotions can quickly become overwhelming and emotional reactions may be very intense.

Memory: Using Working Memory and Accessing Recall

Working memory is a “temporary storage system” in the brain that holds several facts or thoughts in mind while solving a problem or performing a task.

Working memory helps an individual hold information long enough to use it in the short term, focus on a task and remember what to do next. If a student has impairments in working memory, he may have trouble remembering and following teacher directions, memorizing and recalling math facts or spelling words, computing problems in his head or retrieving information from memory when he needs it.

Action: Monitoring and Self-Regulating Action

Individuals with ADHD often have deficits in the ability to regulate their behavior, which can significantly impede social relationships. If a student has difficulty inhibiting behavior he may react impulsively without thought to the context of the situation, or he may overfocus on the reactions of others by becoming too inhibited and withdrawn in interactions.

Like an orchestra, each of these functions must work together in various combinations. When one area is impaired, it affects the others. If a student has deficits in one of these key executive functions, it can obviously interfere with school and academic performance.

Read about teaching strategies that work well for students with ADHD
School Success Strategies: Tips for Teachers

Additional Reading
School Tips for ADHD Kids
Teaching ADHD Children
Tips for ADHD Families


Chris Dendy, MS. Executive Functioning: What Is This Anyway?

Thomas E. Brown, PhD. Executive Functions: Describing Six Aspects of a Complex Syndrome. Attention Magazine. February 2008.

Thomas E. Brown, PhD. The Brown Model of ADD Syndrome.

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