What Are Executive Functioning Skills and Why Do They Matter?


I use the term “executive functioning skills” on pretty much a daily basis. I use the term when talking to parents on the phone or at parent workshops, in emailing back and forth with tutors and coaches, and even when writing my weekly blog.

But when speaking with a friend recently, I mentioned executive functioning skills. She looked at me with a look of pure confusion, like I just spurted out Mandarin. It dawned on me that the term “executive functioning skills” is not an everyday term, but I think that it should be in every parent and teacher’s vocabulary.

What are executive functioning skills?

http://content.artofmanliness.com/uploads//2013/02/brain1.jpgTo begin, we’ll need to get a little bit technical. You may remember from freshman-level psychology that the brain has different parts that control different actions. For example, the occipital lobe in the back of the head controls vision. Executive functions are located in the Dorsal lateral pre-frontal cortex, or in plain English, in the frontal lobe.

This portion of the brain controls our ability to solve problems and regulates our emotions. This part of our brain isn’t fully developed until early adulthood.

The term executive functions is an umbrella term for the control and management of cognitive processes, such as:

  • Reasoning
  • Task switching
  • Critical thinking
  • Problem-solving
  • Working memory
  • Planning

Every person’s executive functions develop at different rates, with most people having a fully developed brain by their mid-twenties. This is actually the reason why you’re not able to rent a car until you are 25!

Everyone has executive functioning skills, but just like the ability to play a musical instrument, some people’s skills are more developed and stronger than those of others.

sisters and executive functioning skills

This is why sisters, Jackie and Jamie, may look similar on the outside but act very differently.

Jamie may have stronger or more developed executive functioning skills, allowing her to be organized, promptly get started on homework when necessary, and keep track of her assignments and homework.

Jackie, on the other hand, may have poor executive functioning skills leading to a string of incomplete assignments on her report card and a locker or bedroom that looks like it belongs on an episode of Hoarders.

What are executive functioning skills versus ADHD?

If you are a parent with a child, like Jackie, at home or a teacher with someone, like Jackie, in your class, it’s highly likely that at one point, the four letters A-D-H-D have popped into your mind. It is important to understand the relationship between ADHD and executive functioning skills because it is a tricky one, and there are a lot of common misconceptions.

line graph

The simplest way to look at ADHD and executive functions is to picture a line graph. On the left-hand side, you have kids like Jamie. Jamie has strong executive functioning skills. She is able to regulate her attention, keep herself organized, plan ahead for assignments, and manage the paper flow to and from school.

In the middle of this line, you have students who may be like Jackie. They are children with poor executive functioning skills, meaning the things that come easy to Jamie are an everyday struggle for students like Jackie.

Finally, all the way on the right, you have students with ADHD. These are children who have been diagnosed with ADHD by a psychologist or a pediatrician.

In other words, it is possible for a student to have poor executive functioning skills but not have ADHD, but it is not possible to have ADHD and strong executive functioning skills.

How do executive functioning skills impact academic performance?

Going back to Jackie and Jamie, it is easy to imagine how successful Jamie would be in the classroom. Since organization, attention, and planning ahead come easily to her, she can always remember to turn in assignments and focus on studying. But it’s clear that for Jackie, school would be an uphill battle.

While the concept of executive functions may be a complicated one, there is one simple fact: strong executive functioning skills are absolutely vital for long-term success in school. Even if Jackie had an easier time absorbing content, she will likely hit a wall once she hits high school or maybe even college.

In fact, proceeded only by financial strain, anxiety, and the inability to juggle coursework is the top reason why students leave college prematurely.

Can you teach executive functioning skills?

If you have a student with weak executive functioning skills, there is good news. First, these are skills that develop over time as the brain matures. Second, these are skills that can be taught just like any other skill with the help of a good coach. That’s where we come in.

How We Help Elementary School Students Build Executive Function Skills

Elementary school is a critical time for students to develop foundational executive function (EF) skills, which are the keys to success in school and life! 

Through a research-based curriculum with a hand-selected coach, we introduce elementary-aged students to the core concepts of executive function. Our virtual lessons include how to:

  • Follow directions and gain awareness of expected behaviors
  • Set goals and stay on task
  • Manage time and learn how to keep organized
  • Learn how to break assignments into smaller parts
  • Think flexibly and build a growth mindset
  • Focus and strengthen working memory
  • Learn how to cope with strong emotions
  • Monitor their own progress and develop self-reflection skills

Strengthening these skills will ensure better outcomes for your child both in and out of the classroom.

How We Help Middle and High School Students Build Executive Function Skills

xecutive Functioning Program for Middle and High School Students at Educational Connections

Our Executive Function Coaching for middle school and high school-aged students is a unique, research-based program to help your child master the skills they need to get organized, manage their time well, study effectively, and stay motivated.

Our coaches structure every session around four steps to empower your child to practice self-reflection, build a toolkit of strategies that work for them, and develop effective habits for lasting change:

  • Step 1: Check the student’s upcoming assignments and tests
  • Step 2: Have students write down or put all upcoming assignments and tests in a calendar
  • Step 3: Complete assignments together
  • Step 4: Reflect and think ahead (including learning how to anticipate challenges and how to “get unstuck”)