What are Executive functions?

What are Executive Functions?

The term Executive Function (EF) describes a set of skills that reside in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. These cognitive functions help us to plan and organise our responses, behaviour and emotions. These are many of the skills that underpin learning and enable children and adolescents to function with a reasonable degree of independence. For example our executive function skills enable us to keep track of time, stay on task, make plans, to be flexible when things change and to control our impulses. The development of executive skills are crucial for successful learning and relationships and they are foundational skills for later life and work.

EF skills continue to develop until our mid twenties, childhood and adolescence presents an opportunity to embed strong skills early on. However we can continue to work on these skills throughout our lives.

Why do we need EF’s?

People who find using their executive skills challenging often have trouble getting started on tasks, get distracted easily, have organisational, planning and prioritisation struggles, poor working memory, cognitive inflexibility and so forth. At school or university this may impact on their academic work, revision for exams, failure to do or hand in homework, find transitioning difficult.  In the working world it may present us putting off the task until the last minute, time management, failing to plan how long something may take and then not finish a task, have short term working memory or find it hard with transitioning of tasks. 

These people are often considered chronic underachievers, and are at risk for academic failure,  likely to have a poor employment record, as well as have emotional and behavioural difficulties.  They are often labelled as lazy. The good news, is due to the malleable nature of the brain’s neural-pathways, we know now that these EF challenges are not fixed and we can make changes to the environment to support children and young people to strengthen their executive function skills. Poor executive functioning can also be a hallmark of neurodiverse profiles such as ADHD, autism, dyslexia and dyspraxia.  

Why is neuroplasticity so important to EF development?

Encouragingly our brains, from a neuroplasticity perspective, are not fully developed until at least our mid twenties, giving plenty of scope to support and help young people. Neuroplasticity means that when skills and strategies are taught to overcome EF challenges, especially to children and young people, the neural connections in the brain are rewired and strengthened.

Executive functions

Working Memory

The ability to hold information and past experience/learning in mind while performing complex tasks

Emotional Control

The ability to recognise and regulate emotions in order to achieve goals, complete tasks and direct behaviour


The ability to self-monitor and self-evaluate

Response Inhibition

The ability to stop, evaluate and think before you act


The ability to design and maintain systems for tracking information and materials

Planning and prioritisation:

The ability to create a plan, make decisions and prioritise for task completion


The ability to begin a task in a timely fashion

Task Initiation

The ability to get started on a task.

Goal-directed Persistence:

The ability to persevere and follow a task through to completion

Time Management

The ability to move appropriately from one situation to another and the capacity to estimate and use time effectively

Sustained Attention

The capacity to attend to a situation or task in spite of distractibility, tiredness or lack of interest