When I formed EdPsyched in 2008, my main area of focus was providing executive function support to students diagnosed with learning differences.  Although the concept of “executive function” has been around since the 1970s, it was still a relatively unfamiliar idea to most families (and clinicians) as recently as the 2000s.

Today, the term “executive function” is well-known and, in all honesty, somewhat of a catchy buzzword or phrase when discussing child development.  But what exactly is executive functioning, and how does one obtain it?

The History

In 1973, Karl Pribram coined the term “executive function” to refer to frontal lobe functioning of the brain.  More specifically, he noted the “frontal cortex appears . . . necessary to maintain brain organization.”  The term was actually adapted from a contemporary computer technology term that referred to the program’s ability to track and organize coding.

Over the years, various researchers added to Pribram’s theory, including concepts such as “cognitive control” and “working memory.”  However, despite its inherent importance to school-related success, the term never really caught on in schools until the early 2000s.  A lot of that changed when Austin Independent School District led an initiative to develop and implement social and emotional learning into its schools, including skills such as self-awareness and self-regulation, which became recognized across the country.  Presently, in 2022, clinicians and educators mainly refer to executive function as a set of skills, including organization, time management, and self-control.

The Key Components

If you search the term “executive function,” you will find many different ways of explaining and/or defining the term.  I like to think of executive function skills as self-regulation skills necessary for success at home and at school.

When evaluating a student, I almost always include a measure of executive function.  One of the most popular and widely-used measures is the Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function (BRIEF-2).  The BRIEF-2 is a report measure that a parent, teacher, or child can fill out regarding the child’s tendencies at home and at school.  It is approximately 60 items, and each item assesses a different component of the subject’s executive functioning.  The BRIEF-2 assesses the subject’s executive functioning in three areas:

1.  Behavior Regulation

2.  Emotion Regulation

3.  Cognitive Regulation

Although there are many ways to characterize executive functioning, I find the BRIEF-2’s categories are the easiest to understand and explain to parents.

Furthermore, the BRIEF-2 breaks down each domain into even smaller, more specific skills.

Behavior Regulation

  • Inhibit
  • Self-Monitor

Emotion Regulation

  • Shift
  • Emotional Control

Cognitive Regulation

  • Initiate
  • Working Memory
  • Plan/Organize
  • Task Monitor
  • Organization of Materials

Based on the raters’ responses, the subject will receive a score in each area.  The lower the score, the better the functioning.

How are Executive Function Skills Developed?

Research consistently shows that executive function skills are just that:  skills.  Like any skill, humans do not simply obtain them.  In order to develop executive function skills, we must practice, practice, practice.  Additionally, since executive functioning is dependent upon the frontal cortex, it is nearly impossible for executive functioning to happen prior to the development of that part of the brain.

When we look at brain development stages, about the earliest we would expect to see executive function skills develop is somewhere between ages 3-5.  Again, this is the beginning of the development; we cannot expect a kindergarten child to have his or her organizational skills fully developed.  As the child ages, the brain is more capable of adopting effective executive function skills.  In turn, the child is more capable of utilizing those skills in real-life situations, as long as he or she continues to practice them.

The frontal lobe is not fully developed until a child has reached early adulthood, typically the early 20s.  This is the time we should expect to see a fully-developed set of executive function skills.  That is a lot of time to work on skills!

ADHD and Executive Function

There are many variables that can impact the development of executive function skills.  One of the biggest challenges for students diagnosed with ADHD are the skills associated with executive functioning.

ADHD, as defined in the DSM-5, is “a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development.”

Additionally, the DSM-5 notes that “Inattention manifests behaviorally in ADHD as wandering off task . . . and being disorganized,” while hyperactivity and impulsivity both impact one’s behavior and emotions.  Simply put, by definition, children with ADHD are expected to struggle with their self-regulation.  This is often the biggest source of frustration for parents and children with ADHD.

Despite these challenges, like any other skill, children with ADHD are capable of learning effective executive function skills.  It may be more difficult and take a more intentional approach, but they can do it.  The best course of action is to work closely with an executive function coach who can identify areas of strength and limitation in each child and develop a plan accordingly.

While executive function skills are essential for school success, they are not automatic skills that simply develop with age.  If your child is struggling with organization, time management, emotion regulation, or impulsive behavior, the first step to changing his or her behavior is to identify the areas of need.  A full evaluation can equip you and your child with the information to thrive.