Wednesday, March 6, 2013

What are executive function skills?

Executive functioning is a buzzword in education right now, but what exactly are executive function skills?

In January I attended a presentation on executive function skills by Sarah Ward, MS, CCC-SLP. Sarah, along with Kristen Jacobsen, MS, CCC-SLP, is a co-founder of Cognitive Connections. Sarah is an expert in the field of executive function, a fabulous speaker, and full of a ton of practical strategies. Over the next few weeks I will be sharing some of the tips I learned from her presentation, as well as tips from my own practice with my students. Today let's start with the basics:

What are executive function skills?

In short, executive function skills are the cognitive skills that students use execute a task. It takes several cognitive skills to execute a task. For example, if a student has a 5 page paper due in two weeks, the student will need to plan ahead, organize her materials, manage her time, regulate her emotions, begin the paper, and ultimately, finish the paper. It's not so simple, is it?

Image credit: Paul B via Flickr

The frontal lobes of the brain are home to executive function skills. Executive function skills begin to develop in infancy and continue developing into adolescence and all the way into early adulthood. Yes, all the way into adulthood! If you think back to your college days, you were probably still fine tuning your planning, organizing, and time management skills! Executive function skills take a long time to fully develop, so it's important to provide children with a solid foundation along the way.

Peg Dawson and Richard Guare have written a fantastic book, Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents, which serves as my go-to resource on executive function skills. In their book, they break executive skills into two categories.

The first category contains thinking skills:

  • Planning - the ability to create a plan to complete a task
  • Organization - the ability to keep track of information and materials
  • Time management - the ability to estimate how much time one has and how to use that time to complete a task
  • Working memory - the ability to remember relevant information while completing a complex task
  • Metacognition - the ability to self-evaluate how you handle a situation

The second category contains additional skills that help guide behavior:

  • Response inhibition - the ability to evaluate a situation prior to reacting
  • Emotional control - the ability to manage emotions
  • Sustained attention - the ability to maintain attention on a task
  • Task initiation - the ability to begin a task in a timely manner
  • Flexibility - the ability to adapt to new situations and revise plans
  • Goal directed persistence - the ability to see a task through to completion


On a day to day basis, what do all of these executive function skills help with?

  • Completing homework
  • Completing chores
  • Saving money
  • Following rules
  • Keeping track of belongings

This post is the first in a series on executive function skills. Now that you have the basics, the upcoming posts will provide you with tips and strategies to help develop executive function skills in your students or children. Please be sure to stop back throughout the month to learn more!


Dawson, P. & Guare, R. (2010). Executive skills in children and adolescents: a practical guide to assessment and intervention, 2nd Edition. Guilford Press: New York.
-Book available for purchase on Amazon.

Additional Resources:

Cognitive Connections website:
Follow Sarah Ward, MS, CCC-SLP on Twitter: @swardtherapy
Follow Kristen Jacobsen, MS, CCC-SLP on Twitter @KJSLP


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