What are the executive functions?

Executive functions. It’s a term that gets thrown around all the time. But not everyone knows what they are. I like to quote Joyce Cooper-Khan and Laurie Dietzel who said, “the executive functions are a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation.”

The executive functions are the control center of the brain. They’re in charge of how we’re able to manage the tasks that we need to accomplish throughout each day, both short and long term. For a student, this could mean organizing their materials, planning their work, researching a paper, meeting deadlines, or completing homework.

In other words, the executive functions are the part of our brain that allow us to carry out a task as we work towards a goal. If we look at the skills that make up the EFs, it will vary, so the list we will use today is initiation, attention, working memory, flexible thinking, organization, planning, time management, and emotional regulation.

If we take a look at a school assignment, we can see how crucial these skills are. Imagine a student is assigned a 4 page paper that requires research, 5 citations, and is due in 4 weeks. This is going to put a tremendous amount of stress on a student’s executive functions. It will require them to meet the challenge and utilize their EF skills in order to manage the paper, the steps involved, and have the self control to get started and maintain attention throughout. This can be a very challenging task for a lot of students, and it is when they need the control center to kick in and meet the demands being placed on their EFs.

So what does all this mean? Research finds that executive functions predict children’s future success as well as, if not better than, IQ tests. These skills are incredibly important for students to be aware of, practice, and master to find academic and life success.

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