We have come a long way in recognizing and supporting executive function skill deficits in students. Still, when it comes to learning disabilities, I find that when it comes to executive functioning issues, they are too often thought of as “won’t” instead of “can’t.”

Executive-functioning skills rule our daily lives. When a student lacks such skills, they are often perceived as lazy, unmotivated, scatterbrained, defiant, and worse.

A woman utilizing executive function skills by sleeping on a desk with books and an alarm clock nearby.
Lacking executive function skills can cause problems at home, school, or work.

Sometimes a person can improve their executive functioning skills. Others develop supports and measures they put in place to help.

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Executive Functioning Skills

One example of this would be that I use Google Calendar for my workday. I have notifications and alerts turned on so I don’t miss meetings and calls.

Otherwise, I get immersed in a task or project and forget things. It’s really embarrassing to miss a Zoom call with a client only to tell them that I was actually sitting at my desk the whole time.

What are Executive Functioning Skills?

Depending on the advice you read, there are anywhere from 5 to 12 sets of executive functioning skills. When a person lacks executive functioning skills, they are often referred to as having ‘executive function disorder.’

This video is an excellent overview of EF skills and what they look like.

However, this is not an official diagnosis, nor is it in the DSM. It is a term for someone lacking the skills; that’s it. A child’s success with the skills or tasks below will vary based on age.

A toddler may cry at not getting a drink “in the green cup,” but they quickly grow out of it. A teen who is doing that needs some support in emotional control.

It’s also important to note that many of these skills and skill deficits overlap. If you tell your child, “Go to your room and get your backpack; it’s time for school,” there are many reasons they may not do this. It might be working memory; it might be multi-step directions, task initiation…or processing and focus.

A child's backpack and shoes, contributing to the development of executive function skills, are neatly placed on a cozy rug in a room.
Often, a child is messy because they cannot choose where to start cleaning up. Or cannot plan where to put things if are picked up.

Executive Functions and Examples

Below, I have listed the categories of executive functioning skills. After that, for each one, I have listed how this may look at home and school if your child lacks the skill.

Response Inhibition: Also called inhibitory control or impulse control. The capacity to think before you act – this ability to resist the urge to say or do something allows us the time to evaluate a situation and how our behavior might impact it.

  1. Calling out in class without raising hand
  2. Impulsive decisions (bad decisions, often result in discipline) when it is said that “the child knows better!”
  3. Responding inappropriately (hitting, spitting, cursing) when wronged
  4. Peers take advantage of him/her, does (inappropriate) things asked of them by peers
  5. Misuses social media, ‘mean tweets’ or lashes out at others on social media, without thinking it through
  6. Makes same mistakes over and over, inability to learn from mistakes due to lack of impulse control, even with serious repercussions
  7. Is an immediate follower of peers’ poor behavior, goes along with them
  8. Cannot control negative responses, has to be heard, such as muttering bad words at a teacher after being reprimanded
  9. If they think it, they say it; cannot control the things that “really shouldn’t be said out loud”

Emotional Regulation: The ability to manage emotions in order to achieve goals, complete tasks, or
control and direct behavior. Individuals with poor emotional control may have trouble adapting efficiently to different situations. They may have difficulty self-monitoring their behavior and emotions.

  1. Bounce back appropriately from minor disappointments, such as favorite TV show not on or not being able to get favorite ice cream flavor
  2. Unnecessarily sad or mad at seemingly small disruptions in their day or routine or expectations
  3. Seemingly over exuberant at mundane things–such as treating a trip to McDonald’s with the same enthusiasm as a trip to Disney.
  4. Get overly emotional and fixate on things
  5. Can make objective decisions in emotional situations, or knows to step back from situation
  6. Cannot take constructive criticism, lashes out when corrected

Planning and Prioritization: The ability to plan out a project both in your mind and on paper. People with weak planning and prioritizing skills may not know how to start planning a project. They may be easily overwhelmed trying to break tasks into smaller, more manageable parts, and they may have trouble seeing the big picture.

  1. poor productivity
  2. cannot plan for the long term
  3. cannot pick out which tasks should be done first
  4. everything is important or nothing is important (because they are unable to discern)

Task Initiation: The ability to start a task in a timely manner.

  1. Procrastination is biggest signal you will see! The child has not started the task because it’s overwhelming to them.
  2. Appears that they are ignoring parents’ or teachers’ commands, when they likely do not know how to get started.
  3. Have trouble starting and/or completing tasks
  4. struggles to make choices
An executive woman is sitting at a desk with a laptop, demonstrating exceptional executive function skills.

Flexible Thinking: The ability to revise plans in the face of obstacles, setbacks, new information or mistakes. It relates to an adaptability to changing conditions. Those with trouble being flexible may be rule-bound and rigid in their thinking.

They may not be willing to negotiate with other people. They tend to be poor problem solvers and will repeatedly try the same solution that isn’t working. A person with reduced flexibility may have a hard time switching plans once they have been set.

  1. Responds poorly to changes in schedule, routine
  2. Rules followers, black and white thinking, do not see the gray areas in life
  3. Panics when rules or routines change
  4. Cannot understand different points of view
  5. cannot adapt plans based on new information

Time Management: The ability to estimate how much time they have, how to allocate it, and how to stay within time limits and deadlines. Understands sense of urgency when it is warranted.

  1. Always late or super early
  2. cannot manage morning tasks to be ready for school
  3. cannot plan out a long-term school project or assignment, and how to complete it
  4. no sense of urgency at getting to things on time
  5. has little sense of time, what is one hour or three hours
  6. could not pack a suitcase for a week’s vacation on their own
  7. could not cook bacon, eggs and toast all at the same time, ready to eat (reasonably so, of course)

Working Memory: The ability to hold information in memory while performing complex tasks. Working memory involves storing information, remembering lists of items and instructions, and solving problems quickly.

It incorporates the ability to draw on past learning or experience to apply to the situation at hand or to project into the future.

  1. cannot remember things
  2. loses items frequently
  3. does not bring information taught to them previously to new school years or chapters of their lives, or even to the next lesson; cannot build on knowledge–it seems to exist in silos
  4. cannot follow multi step directions
  5. does not complete homework or if completed does not bring it to school or hand it in
  6. forgets things like lunch money, permission slips and other essentials that are to be shared between home and school
  7. cannot remember rules and instructions that teachers may have told them at beginning of school year
  8. cannot do locks on lockers, cannot remember combination and how to manipulate
  9. cannot tell others their address or parents’ phone number in emergency
  10. poor story teller–cannot recall, details are disjointed and not in sequence

Organization: The ability to keep their belongings organized. Can see and develop a logical system for keeping their belongings organized, such as clothes in closet, socks in drawer and so on.

  1. frequently cannot find things
  2. loses personal belongings often
  3. is unable to manage new belongings, such as presents at Christmas time, and find a spot for them in their room
  4. cannot put laundry away without explicit instructions
  5. doesn’t recognize nor follow organizational systems set up by others, at home or at school
  6. school backpack and binders are in disarray

Attention, Focus and Persistence: The ability to focus on something, and persist in focusing on it until a desired goal is achieved. Various psychologists break up these tasks, others group them together and may use different terms.

  1. gives up easily, even on seemingly desired activities
  2. inattention
  3. inability to stick to a short term goal–clean room and then get ice cream
  4. inability to stick to a long term goal–allowance and money saving goal or other achievement
  5. easily distracted
  6. cannot refocus when interrupted
  7. can only focus in certain situations, cannot ‘tune out’ unnecessary distractions (within reason)
  8. cannot concentrate on a task

Self Monitoring: Also referred to as metacognition. Ability to self reflect, evaluate your own performance and behavior, and improve or make changes.

  1. Is overly or under sensitive to criticism, lacks ability to see objectivity
  2. frequently makes same mistakes
  3. cannot communicate their own errors when probed, such as from a music teacher or sports coach who asks “what could you have done better?”
  4. is not able to answer the questions “How did you do?” when asked about school activities

And, as I said, there is a ton of overlap in all of these. Here are some more tasks and skills linked to executive functioning. Most will fit in several of the categories above.

  1. Have trouble organizing their thoughts
  2. Have trouble keeping track of their belongings
  3. Have trouble managing their time
  4. Paying attention
  5. Organizing, planning, and prioritizing
  6. Starting tasks and staying focused on them to completion
  7. Self-monitoring (keeping track of what you’re doing)
  8. Do things based on your experience
  9. Multitask
  10. Planning projects
  11. Estimating how much time a project will take to complete
  12. Telling stories (verbally or in writing)
  13. Memorizing
  14. Starting activities or tasks
  15. Shifting plans when situations change
  16. Focusing only on one task
  17. Shutting down when parents or peers don’t act as expected
  18. Have difficulty prioritizing tasks
  19. Forget what they just heard or read
  20. Have trouble following directions or a sequence of steps
  21. Have trouble switching focus from one task to another

Executive Functioning Skills for Kids

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