Executive Functions

What are Executive Functions?

Common questions in learning begin with, How do I…What should I do…When should I do… Why do I…, to respond and act on any of these questions requires the use of executive function skills. Executive Function skills are responsible for a person’s ability to engage in focused, self-regulated, and goal-directed activities. These behaviors are routinely called upon to get through a typical day and are the crucial in the development of educational, behavioral, and social skills. Because grade appropriate development of executive functions is a prerequisite for learning in school today, a student who does not exhibit the required level of executive function proficiency has an increased chance of developing academic and behavioral problems. Please take a moment to become familiar with descriptions of behaviors identified by the BRIEF 2 (Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function, Second Edition).

Inhibitory Control (Self Control) allows a person to regulate their behavior to achieve a goal. Signs of struggle within this domain are:

  • Interrupts others often
  • Speaks aloud when working
  • Acts without thinking
  • Unable to sit still
  • Exhibits out of control behavior
  • Problems waiting turns

Self-monitor one’s actions to achieve a preferred outcome, as well as being aware of how one’s actions affect others. Signs of struggle within this domain are:

  • Easily annoys others
  • Unrealistic notions of one’s own abilities
  • Struggles to learn from mistakes made in the past
  • Does not recognize individual strengths and weaknesses
  • Unaware of how one’s behaviors impacts others
  • Unaware of own behavior in a group

Shift is the capability to maneuver between tasks. Signs of struggle within this domain are:

  • Struggles with problem solving in school, with friends, or responsibilities
  • Difficulty transitioning from one activity to another
  • Gets stuck on problems and cannot move on
  • Gets disturbed when changing from one location to another
  • Resists change of routine
  • Ruminates on topics

Emotional Control is the competence to react appropriately in situations. Signs of struggle within this domain are:

  • Temper flares easily
  • Small events trigger big reactions
  • Mood changes frequently
  • Outbursts can be intense but end quickly
  • Mood is easily influenced by situation
  • Overreacts often

Initiate a task or action, generate ideas or responses, or offer problem-solving approaches independently. Signs of struggle within this domain are:

  • Struggles to begin work independently
  • Difficulty organizing events with others
  • Needs to be told how to begin even when willing
  • Difficulty getting started on homework or tasks
  • Does not take initiative

Task Completion is the ability to follow through and complete a chore, or assignment. Although this is not an executive function per se, task completion requires an individual to engage purposeful actions to achieve a successful outcome. Signs of struggle within this domain are:

  • Difficulty trying to finish long-term assignments
  • Struggles to complete school work or tasks
  • Requires extended time for projects
  • Takes longer than others to complete class work
  • Struggles to follow through with actions

Working Memory makes it possible to retain and recall necessary information to complete a task. Think of it as the brains GPS system, if you to remember information to complete a task the working memory stores the information while the brain is working on the process. Signs of struggle within this domain are:

  • Remembers only the first step in multi-step directions
  • Has a short attention span
  • Provides good ideas but does not carry them out
  • Struggles to remember even for a few minutes
  • Problems concentrating on tasks and work
  • May forget what one is doing
  • Needs help from another to stay on task

Plan is the ability to manage the demands of current and future tasks. Signs of struggle within this domain are:

  • Does not prepare in advance for school work
  • Gets overwhelmed with large projects
  • Procrastinates and often waits until the last minute to work
  • Under estimates time needed to complete work
  • Struggles to achieve a goal

Organize is the ability to arrange information and/or resources in an orderly manner, as well as understand main ideas and key concepts when learning or communicating. Signs of struggle within this domain are:

  • Cannot locate possessions at home or school
  • Gets lost in the details and struggles to recognize the main idea
  • Written work is poorly organized
  • Has good ideas but they do not get written down
  • Loses school materials
  • Leaves messes that others have to clean up
  • Forgets to turn in homework even when completed
  • Does not bring home necessary materials to complete school work
  • Belongings are left everywhere

How we help

S.M.A.R.T. Learning Strategies helps a student overcome a skill or behavior deficit. We teach techniques that focus on how to learn which can then be practiced across content areas. These skills are not only useful in school, but in life! Whether a student needs help to develop a skill or develop a behavior, S.MA.R.T. Learning Strategies can help a student apply practical learning methods that result in successful life-long habits such as these listed.

Organization: Time Management, Prioritizing Activities, and, Task Planning

  • Create and maintain a materials management system where the student can find short-term and long-term school resources efficiently.
  • Create and maintain an organized workspace.
  • Use decision-making skills to determine how to use time effectively and efficiently.
  • Develop long-term planning skills that prevent procrastination.

Regulating Behaviors:

  • Understand the importance of following directions both spoken and written.
  • Identify and implement practical learning techniques.
  • Create goals for success with an action plan to implement.
  • Learn coping skills for stressful situations.Manage transitions when switching tasks.


  • Develop memory strategies that encourage long-term recall of information.
  • Use strategies to develop memory capabilities.
  • Improve retention and recall of information.
  • Increase attention and stay focused on a task for a period of time.


  • Use an analytical approach to reading to improve reading comprehension
  • Develop pre-reading activities that improve focus and comprehension.
  • Develop logical thinking skills using inferences, predictions, and text connections.


  • Organize and complete various styles of writing assignments.
  • Use brainstorming techniques to develop ideas and initiate writing.
  • Revise and Edit for effective written communication.

What Can Parents do to help a child with Executive Dysfunction?

Self-Awareness. Executive dysfunction is an explanation for why a student struggles but it does not define a child. Your child has many strengths to build upon. Encourage him/her to do just that!

Proactivity. Encourage your child to take an active role in clubs, sports, community activities, and social functions. Help your child to develop talents, and, to help others do the same.

Perseverance. “When the going gets tough, the touch get going.” Encourage your child to think outside of the box to come up with new ways to overcome obstacles.

Goal-Setting. Model and teach your child how to create and achieve specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely goals which help to build self-confidence.

Presence and use of effective support systems. A scaffold support network at a young age provides the right amount of support for your child to develop independence in learning and life.

Emotional coping strategies. Stress is a fact of life, teach your child to recognize stressors and give your child the tools to overcome anxiety and be able to think clearly in difficult times.

Wonder what it is like to experience EF dysfunction?