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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:

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  • 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.

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