what are executive functions?
The term executive function describes a set of skills that reside in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. These cognitive functions help us to plan and organise our responses, behaviour and emotions. These are many of the skills that underpin learning and enable children and adolescents to function with a reasonable degree of independence. For example our executive function skills enable us to keep track of time, stay on task, make plans, to be flexible when things change and to control our impulses. The development of executive skills are crucial for successful learning and relationships and they are foundational skills for later life and work.
Executive function skills continue to develop until our mid twenties. Childhood and adolescence presents an opportunity to embed strong skills early on, but we can continue to work on these skills throughout our lives.
What do executive function challenges look like?
People who have executive function challenges often have trouble getting started on tasks, get distracted easily, have organisational, planning and prioritisation struggles, and have poor working memory and cognitive flexibility.
At school or university this may impact on their academic work, revision for exams, failure to do or hand in homework, or finding transitioning difficult. In the working world, it may present as putting off the task until the last minute, time management, failing to plan how long something may take and then not finish a task, have short term working memory or find it hard with transitioning of tasks.
These people are often considered chronic underachievers and are at risk of academic failure, are likely to have a poor employment record, as well as having emotional and behavioural difficulties. They are often labelled as lazy. The good news is due to the malleable nature of the brain’s neural pathways, we know now that these executive function challenges are not fixed and that we can make changes to the environment to support children and young people to strengthen their executive function skills. Poor executive functioning can also be a hallmark of neurodiverse profiles such as ADHD, autism, dyslexia and dyspraxia.
Why is neuroplasticity so important to executive function development?
Encouragingly, our brains are not fully developed until at least our mid-twenties, giving plenty of scope to support and help young people. Neuroplasticity means that when skills and strategies are taught to overcome executive function challenges, especially to children and young people, the neural connections in the brain are rewired and strengthened.