Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

ADD & ADHD Health Center

Font Size
A
A
A

What Is Executive Function?

Executive function refers to a set of mental skills that are coordinated in the brain's frontal lobe. Executive functions work together to help a person achieve goals.

Executive function includes the ability to:

Recommended Related to ADD-ADHD

Aging and ADHD

ADHD doesn't just affect kids or young adults. If you're an older adult who often feels distracted and disorganized and struggles to complete tasks, it may be worth finding out if you've been living with undiagnosed ADHD. "I have patients in their 50s, 60s, and early 70s who were never diagnosed before and were prompted to consider ADHD after their child or grandchild got diagnosed. It's highly genetic," says David W. Goodman, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at...

Read the Aging and ADHD article > >

  • manage time and attention
  • switch focus
  • plan and organize
  • remember details
  • curb inappropriate speech or behavior
  • integrate past experience with present action

When executive function breaks down, behavior becomes poorly controlled. This can affect a person's ability to:

  • work or go to school
  • function independently
  • maintain appropriate social relationships

Types of Executive Function

Executive function can be divided into two categories:

  • organization
  • regulation

Organization involves gathering information and structuring it for evaluation. Regulation involves taking stock of the environment and changing behavior in response to it.

For example, seeing a piece of chocolate cake on the dessert cart at a restaurant may be tempting. But that's where executive function can step in.

It will help remind you that based on your experience and prior knowledge, the supersized portion is likely to contain hundreds of calories. And your executive function would also remind you that eating the cake conflicts with goals like eating less sugar and losing weight.

Disorders of Executive Function

A person can be born with a shortfall in executive functioning. Executive function may also be impaired by damage to the brain's prefrontal cortex.

Executive function problems are associated with a number of psychiatric and development disorders. These include:

  • depression
  • ADHD
  • learning disabilities

Also, brain damage related to Alzheimer's disease, strokes, or head injuries can lead to problems with executive function.

Executive Function in Children

Problems with executive function can run in families. They may become most apparent during a child's grade school years, when they interfere with the ability to start and complete schoolwork on time.

The good news is that the brain continues to develop well into adulthood. A person's executive functions are shaped by physical changes but also by ongoing experiences. Early attention to problems with executive functioning can help children outgrow and compensate for weaknesses.

Warning signs that a child may be having difficulty with executive function include trouble in:

  • planning projects
  • estimating how much time a project will take to complete
  • telling stories (verbally or in writing)
  • memorizing information
  • initiating activities or tasks
  • retaining information while doing something with it (for example, remembering a phone number while dialing)

 

Diagnosing Problems With Executive Function

Executive function involves a set of interrelated skills. So there's no single test to identify trouble. Instead psychologists, teachers, speech-language pathologists, and therapists rely on different tests to measure specific skills.

Problems identified by individual tests can't predict how well adults or children will function in complex, real-world situations. Sometimes careful observation and trial teaching are more valuable ways of identifying and improving weak executive function.

WebMD Medical Reference

Today on WebMD

Justin Timberlake
Slideshow
brain food
SLIDESHOW
 
Man distracted while working
Assessment
young man holding book
Article
 

concentration killers
SLIDESHOW
Woman taking a vitamin or supplement
Article
 
ADHD and Substance Abuse
Article
Reduce Side Effects ADHD Medications
Article
 

young man with head in hands
Evaluator
smiling man
Article
 
ADHD in Marriage and Romantic Relationships
Article
Adult man lying awake in bed
Article
 

WebMD Special Sections