Executive function encompasses “functions such as planning, working memory, inhibition, mental flexibility, as well as the initiation and monitoring of action.”1 Executive functions rely on our automatic processing as well as our supervisory/executive control. In other words, executive function is dependent on both subconscious processes that should occur automatically as well as conscious processes that require our oversight. The conscious, supervisory component relies on our prefrontal cortex. The automatic processing component, on the other hand, depends on the degree to which three primary cognitive skills — namely attention, working memory and processing speed — operate effectively and interdependently. Executive dysfunction often manifests with some of the symptoms listed below.
ORGANIZATION, PLANNING & PRIORITIZING
The ability to manage current and future task demands systematically and efficiently. Common Symptoms of Dysfunction: neglecting to turn in assignments; unpreparedness; underestimating required effort; overwhelmed by multiple simultaneous projects or classes; trouble identifying the most important information and managing time effectively.
INITIATION & MOTIVATION
The ability to begin a task or activity and generate ideas, responses, and strategies. Common Symptoms of Dysfunction: difficulty starting homework; problems completing chores and routine activities without prompting; putting off major projects.
The ability to monitor one’s behavior and measure progress against needs or expectations. Common Symptoms of Dysfunction: oblivious regarding own behavior; tendency to misjudge own efforts toward goals; difficulty accepting and using feedback; negative evaluations come as a surprise.
The ability to shift focus and to think creatively in order to respond appropriately to situations. Common Symptoms of Dysfunction: rigid thinking; difficulty switching while thinking about two different concepts; trouble thinking about multiple concepts simultaneously.
The ability to resist temptation, often through imagining outcomes before acting. Common Symptoms of Dysfunction: trouble controlling verbal, physical and emotional urges (excessive talking, interrupting others, grabbing things, pushing and shoving, hitting).
A pattern of delays often precipitated by negative feelings or anticipation of discomfort. Common Symptoms of Dysfunction: fear of failure (can be perfectionism); self-doubt; avoidance of discomfort associated with challenges.
IMPROVING EXECUTIVE FUNCTION
Exercise is a positive contributor: in both students and adults, regular exercise can improve executive function.2 Mindfulness, yoga, and martial arts have also proven beneficial. Finally, growing up bilingual can result in improved executive function, in particular in the domain of attentional control.3 These healthy habits and skills are beneficial for other aspects of cognition as well, and generally promote good physical and mental health.
Executive functions can also be improved directly. A recent review article provides an overview of a variety of methods that can improve executive function in students.4 Training programs where demands on executive function increase over time are especially effective and the gains from these interventions are large and reliable, particularly for those who need them most.
Executive function relies on the relative strength and interdependency of our attention, working memory and processing speed (prefrontal area of the frontal lobes). These interdependent skills allow our higher level executive control mechanism to manage (regulate, control) cognitive processes, including reasoning, task flexibility, and problem solving as well as planning and execution.5 Programs that target cognitive skills in isolation usually fail to improve executive function.6 The prefrontal areas of the frontal lobe are necessary but not solely sufficient for carrying out these functions. On the other hand, programs that focus only on coaching behaviors effective for executive function also fall short. If the skills are weak, guidance in how to deploy these skills collaboratively will be frustrating at best, since they have not yet been built to their potential.
1: R. Chan, “Assessment of executive functions: Review of instruments and identification of critical issues,” Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology 23 (2008) 201-216.
2: C. Davis et al., “Exercise improves executive function and achievement and alters brain activation in overweight children:A randomized, controlled trial,” Health Psychology 30 (2011): 91-98.
3: O. Adescope et al., “A systematic review and meta-analysis of the cognitive correlates of bilingualism,” Review of Educational Research 80 (2010): 207-245.
4: A. Diamond & K. Lee, “Interventions shown to aid executive function development in children 4 to 12 years old,” Science 333 (2011): 959-964.
5: R. C. K. Chan et al, “Assessment of executive functions: Review of instruments and identification of critical issues”. Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology (2008): 201-216.
6: J. A. Alvarez et al, “Executive function and the frontal lobes: A meta-analytic review”. Neuropsychology Review 16 (2006): 17–42.