Executive Functions 101

What ARE Executive Functions and Executive Function Skills?

Executive functions, in simple terms, refer to the brain’s ability to control communication between various areas of the brain. They manage how we organize, plan, adjust, get started and carry out tasks in life. These skills affect outcomes for all of us, and are a bigger factor in success and achievement than intelligence. We use these skills to direct actions towards a goal. Once we define the goal, we can figure out HOW to get there. Executive function skills help us to do this so we can complete tasks and find success; this applies across all areas of life including academic, athletic, and social-emotional.

Read on below to learn more about each area of executive functioning:


Organization refers not only to how we manage our things (papers, materials, spaces) but also how we sort and store information and how we maintain these routines.

Individuals who have difficulty organizing may experience

  • lack of awareness of assignments
  • difficulty finding necessary items/loses supplies
  • messy room or backpack
  • losing or not turning in work
  • no system for managing school work

Time Management

Time Management refers to how we generally understand the passage of time (what does 5 minutes really FEEL like?) as well as how we manage and choose to use that time.

Individuals who have difficulty with time management may experience

  • late for appointments, practices or games
  • trouble guessing how long things will take
  • trouble finishing homework
  • poor choices about how to spend time
  • procrastination


Planning refers to how we lay out and manage everything that we need to do in our lives and school work, and how we make time for and see all of the details and moving parts.

Individuals who have difficulty planning may experience

  • lack of a way to track work, to do’s and activities
  • choosing to do less important or fun things first
  • difficulty with long-term projects or assignments
  • overwhelmed with the amount of work
  • difficulty with writing assignment

Task Analysis, Initiation and Completion

Task Analysis refers to how we look at and break down tasks into steps, how we decide what needs to be done and then how we go about getting started and carrying out all of these steps until we reach completion. This is the what, when and how in everything we do.

Individuals who have difficulty tasks may experience

  • difficulty getting started and making plans
  •  trouble digesting, breaking down or processing information
  • gets stuck in first steps of a task
  •  needs excessive reminders to start or stay on task
  •  resists offers of help
  •  hard time recognizing the reward upon task completion
  • leaves assignments unfinished
  • overwhelmed by what needs to be done
  • makes things a bigger deal than they need to be

Synthesis of Information/ Academic Skills

Synthesis of Information refers to how we take large amounts of information or smaller components and make connections so that we can integrate and apply the information in other contexts. Academic skills refer to our ability to carry out tasks and processes necessary for academic success, which encompass most of the executive function skills mentioned on this page and also includes learning appropriate and effective study skills and techniques.

Individuals who have difficulty with study skills and academics may experience

  • overwhelmed by amount of work to do or study
  • studies a long time with poor results
  • not sure how to study or approach is limited
  • frustrated with how difficult some subjects can be
  • allows relationship with teacher to affect performance
  • struggles with what to take notes on or how to take them
  • variable grades or quiz/test performance
  • does the bare minimum or doesn’t plan study approach

Attention, Focus and Working Memory

Attention and focus refer to our ability to hold attention on tasks, conversations and what is going on around us in addition to processing or actually thinking about what we see, hear and do. Working memory refers to our ability to hold information temporarily or recall information quickly that is meant to just be remembered for a very short time (ie. grocery list as we run into the store or what to grab from upstairs while heading out for the day).

Individuals who have difficulty attending or with working memory may experience

  • trouble sitting or working for long periods of time
  • zones out, daydreams or easily distracted
  • forgets multi-step instructions soon after receiving them
  • difficulty getting through longer commitments without complaining or becoming upset
  • makes careless errors
  • misses important announcements about due dates, permission slips, etc.
  • continue on or interject a comment from the previous comment halfway through the next
  •  provides automated responses without processing or thinking through

Self Regulation/ Goal Directed Persistence

Self Regulation refers to how aware we are about ourselves and where we stand relative to our goals and expectations. Goal directed persistence refers to our ability to set, recognize and remember a goal as we plan and stay on track with carrying out the steps necessary to achieve them (including overcoming obstacles which are bound to present themselves along the way). Can we stick with it?

Individuals who have difficulty regulating may experience

  • has a hard time recognizing mistakes or challenges
  • resists taking responsibility
  • blames others
  • finishes at first draft with little or no time spent reviewing
  • doesn’t adjust quality of work when suggestions are made
  • difficulty setting or working towards goals
  • not motivated by rewards or consequences
  • gives up easily
  • difficulty anticipating or preparing self for outcomes

Behavior and Emotional Regulation

Behavior and Emotional Regulation refers to how we manage and carry ourselves as well as how we adjust and respond to individuals and situations.

Individuals who have difficulty with behavior and emotions may experience

  • interrupts or blurts out responses
  • jumps to conclusions
  • acts out verbally or physically when upset
  • has a hard time thinking abstractly or coming up with solutions
  • can be inflexible, rigid or has difficulty with change
  • refuses to listen after repeated reminders
  • doesn’t follow rules
  • gets caught up in conflict/drama
  • difficulty noticing impact of own behavior on others
  • overreacts to small situations
  • easily upset/overwhelmed
  • trouble with perceived fairness/unfairness
  • difficulty with social cues
  • often in tears or seems down/apathetic
  • difficulty self soothing/calming