Hot and Cold Executive Functions

There have been times when I meet with a student’s parents and they tell me that their child is very disorganized. They lose assignments, forget their lunch, forget to bring books home, lose their planner, and can’t keep anything straight. When it comes to school, the student is all over the place. Then, the parent tells me they play a sport like hockey or lacrosse. And I ask if they’re disorganized with all their equipment, getting to games or practice, or making sure they have everything they need. And almost every time, the parent tells me that the student is extremely organized. They have a system that they use and it works for them each time they have to leave the house. They’re even on time each day.

This same dynamic exists for college students not living at home. For academic tasks, they will be discombobulated and challenged. But for an activity or task they are interested in, they will be able to get through it.

So why is that? Why would the same student be so bad at organizing for school, but be so thorough and system-oriented for hockey? Or any other activity they’re interested in.

“Hot executive functions refer to the self-management skills we use in situations where emotions run high. Cool executive functions refer to the skills we use when emotions aren’t really a factor” (Zelazo, 2022). In other words, the more that emotion enters the equation, the hotter the executive functions become. This makes sense if we think about our day. Those times when we’re feeling frustrated, anxious, or angry, we typically have less control of our self-regulation.

Let’s go back to our initial example. When it comes to school, many students will feel unhealthy levels of stress, anxiety, or pressure. This can ramp up their emotions, require them to access hot EFs, and cause them to struggle. Conversely, a kid who loves to play hockey isn’t feeling any stress about getting to practice or a game. In fact, they are probably excited and find happiness from it. This allows them to use cool EFs and have no problem. 

This is an isolated example, but it paints a clear picture of why certain situations (namely school) are so difficult for students. The executive functions are very closely linked to a student’s emotions. The more regulated their emotions, the more functional and effective their EFs will be. If anything, this knowledge highlights the importance for students to continue to build self awareness, self-understanding, and begin to gain more control over their emotions. 

Zelazo, P. D. (2022, February 25). Executive functions: They can be hot or cool. Understood. Retrieved March 11, 2022, from

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