What Is Executive Functioning?

From a professional figure skater landing a triple axel with ease to a neurosurgeon deftly performing intensive surgery, any accomplished individual will attest that success is not happenstance. Yes, some are naturally gifted, but talent can only take a person so far without dedicated practice and attention. Whatever the ultimate goal, focus is essential to achieving success.

Whether your child needs help boosting their grades or enhancing their studying skills, executive functioning is a crucial mental process in any subject — from early education through higher education. However, executive functioning is not necessarily an intuitive process, and challenges can appear along the way. Read on to learn about common challenges and how to demystify executive function in your child’s learning process.

What Is Executive Function?

Executive function is the mental strategy that promotes a student’s ability to set goals, focus attention, retain information, and balance multiple responsibilities at once. Key principles in executive function include time management, planning, and organization.

What Is Executive Function in Child Development?

Babies and young children take comfort in the predictable routines their caretakers establish –– from an eating schedule to the nightly bedtime practices that ease them to sleep –– and these routines are embedded with the executive function competence that children need to thrive. As with any learned skill set, some children will need more help than others to hone their organizational and time management skills.

Genetics and early childhood experiences provide the framework for a child’s capacity to practice proactivity and focus. Students will not naturally gain these skills over time if they don’t practice the mental framework of executive function. Just as some children need extra support to master algebra, some, too, need a guiding hand to sharpen their executive function skills. Learning executive functioning skills fosters growth in every aspect of a person’s life –– from earning good grades to achieving career aspirations in adulthood.

What Is Executive Function Disorder?

Medical experts don’t classify executive function disorder as an independent mental health condition, but rather, demonstrated symptoms can be indicative of underlying health issues. In addition to displaying disorganization and lack of focus, people with executive function disorder may struggle to maintain emotions or impulses and have difficulty making or maintaining relationships. Mental health issues such as depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can impact a person’s executive functioning skills. Neurological disorders can also affect cognitive domains and create regulation deficiencies.

Executive function disorder symptoms include:

  • Inability to pay attention
  • Restlessness
  • Lack of impulse control
  • Difficulty processing new information
  • Emotional control challenges
  • Difficulty starting and completing tasks
  • Feeling overwhelmed when multitasking
  • Socially inappropriate behavior
  • Inability to learn from consequences

What Is the Difference Between Cognitive and Executive Function?

Executive function and cognition are closely interrelated. A range of different learning and problem-solving skills make up cognitive function. Reasoning, visual-spatial ability, and memory processing are individual mental capacity skills that impact cognitive function. As such, cognitive function affects executive functioning abilities. For example, memory processing challenges can hinder a person’s ability to track information and balance multiple projects.

Executive Functioning Skills

Harnessing executive function skills is a powerful tool to enable the student to overcome function and cognitive obstacles.

Prioritization Skills

Between extracurricular activities and loaded class assignments, students can be overwhelmed with what to do first. Prioritization skills help students exercise nimble thinking by organizing and ranking tasks according to importance and urgency.

Prioritization skills include:

  • Separating tasks into fixed versus flexible categories
  • Creating a routine
  • Deleting unnecessary interruptions
  • Fully investing in one task at a time
  • Making adjustments

Organizational Skills

Organization is a practical way to exercise basic executive functioning skills. A tidy desk, clearly planned calendar, and sorted folders are the stepping stones to processing information. These small systemized actions translate to a student’s ability to organize thoughts and set goals.

Organizational skills include:

  • Careful listening
  • Goal setting
  • Proactive thinking
  • Focusing
  • Taking initiative

Time Management Skills

Distractions, big and small — from scrolling through social media to staying up late playing video games — are surefire ways to fall behind and become swamped with work. Time management is not always intuitive but can be taught. Flexible thinking and organization help students determine how long each assignment will take to approach work in a manageable way. Time management skills encompass every aspect of a student’s life and account for work, rest, and play.

Time management skills include:

  • Planning
  • Delegating
  • Starting early and setting small, manageable goals
  • Maintaining momentum
  • Creating a focused and productive environment


If your child has trouble juggling school and life responsibilities, they may benefit from the skills taught in executive functioning. For more information, download our executive functioning guide, and consider a private tutor to nurture your child’s time management and prioritization abilities.