Executive Function Tests: What Do They Tell You?

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on August 25, 2022
3 min read

Your executive functions are mental skills that act like the CEO of your brain. They watch over different parts of your mind and help you sort your thoughts and work toward goals.

“These mental skills are tied to our ability to plan, remember, learn, and adapt to changes we experience,” says Emily W. King, PhD, a child psychologist in Raleigh, NC. “They allow us to hold things in our mind to complete a task, or have working memory, think flexibly when a change needs to be made, and control our impulses.”

Executive functions are also responsible for our emotions.

When you have ADHD, your executive function skills aren’t as strong. This can show up in different ways. You might:

  • Have a problem completing projects
  • Forget things you just heard or read
  • Struggle to follow directions
  • Not be able to deal with routine change
  • Lose focus when switching from one task to another
  • Fixate on things
  • Lose belongings
  • Struggle to manage time

To find the best ways to treat different issues, it helps to understand which ones affect you most. That’s what executive function tests do.

Because executive functions are a wide set of skills, there’s more than one tool to test how well yours work. Some executive function tests measure more than one skill at a time. But usually, each test is focused on one of these areas:

  • Attention
  • Impulse control
  • Working memory
  • Organization and planning
  • Idea formation
  • Moving between tasks

A working memory test, for example, is a test you take with a licensed psychologist. It shows how well you remember things said and shown to you.

“If a child has weaknesses in working memory, for example, it makes learning harder,” King says. “You use your working memory taking notes or thinking through different aspects of something someone is telling us.”

Other executive function tests use rating scales. These tests are based on parents’ and teachers’ observations of a child’s behaviors. Adults can use these tests, too. You just look at your own behaviors and self-report. A professional can use the results to compare how you function to other people your age. These types of tests may be more biased than the one-on-one tests with a psychologist, but they’re still useful.

Often, children get executive function tests as part of a full evaluation or educational assessment. This is a set of tests that looks at how a child takes in and puts out information. An evaluation is the first step in getting your child support at school through an individualized education program (IEP) or 504 plan that lists the specific kinds of help your child needs to succeed. [Self-Test] Could Your Child Have an Executive Function Deficit?

“For instance, a child may have a superior intelligence score but a low average working memory,” says King. “That child will likely need support to be able to show others what they are intellectually capable of in a classroom.”

Test results can also help at home.

“Families can break down chore and homework tasks and put visual supports in place,” King says. “Using timers, technology, and visual schedules can be helpful for kids who have executive functioning weaknesses. And if they’re having trouble regulating their emotions, you can think about using resources like cognitive behavioral therapy to help your child thrive.”