What it is, why it's important, and how coaching can help
What is Executive Function?
There's no one, single, simple definition of executive function (EF)--even the name varies, being frequently interchanged with other terms like "executive functioning," "executive skills," and "cognitive functions." Historically, there is a general consensus in the field that EF encompasses 3 core areas: response inhibition (impulse-control), working memory, and cognitive (mental) flexibility. There's also agreement that EF is mediated by the prefrontal cortex in our brains (part of the frontal lobes and the last region of our brains to develop and mature) and involves so many different, yet interrelated mental processes that it's difficult to describe. Defined broadly--it's all about thinking and doing. It's not about knowing--rather, it's about acting on what we know. You can have the knowledge stored in the back of your brain, but it's the front brain--the executive functions--that are responsible for using that information to evaluate options, make decisions, plan and pursue goals, and take actions to accomplish them. It is goal-oriented, self-directed thinking and behavior. Researchers have conceptualized different models for explaining how EF occurs in the brain. Below are some of these frameworks of EF from leading experts and literature in the field (click tabs and links for further reading):
The Four Circuits
The "what" circuit controls working memory and uses what we know to make and execute a plan
The "when" circuit is the timing circuit that helps us coordinate the sequence of steps needed to complete a task or goal within a timeline
The "why" circuit is known as the "hot" circuit because it links our thinking and emotions, and is the "final decision maker" in all our plans
The "who" circuit is responsible for our self-awareness
Ability to hold things in your mind, recall & apply past experience to current situation, & use the information to perform complex tasks. Includes nonverbal working memory (how well you mentally picture things) & verbal (self-talk, inner monologue). Like a computer's RAM.
Ability to manage current & future-oriented demands, decide what is important or not, what steps are involved in accomplishing a task, & the sequence for completing them. Allows us to create a trail map plotting our route to a goal.
Ability to develop & maintain systems of organization, to keep track of information & materials. Using space efficiently & imposing order in various workspaces, including home, play, & storage spaces (desks, backpacks, closets, etc.).
Ability to sense & "feel" time, estimate time required for tasks, allocate & effectively use time, estimate how much time has elapsed, & map out how to complete tasks within given timeframes & deadlines. Includes concepts of time blindness, temporal discounting, & time horizons.
Ability to "zoom out" & think about our thinking. Our capacity for self-awareness, self-monitoring, & insight. Allows us to observe & evaluate our thoughts, feelings, & actions, to review & measure our performance against expectations, to reflect & readjust to meet needs.
Ability to control our impulses, slow the body down enough to "think before we act," to evaluate the situation & possible consequences of different choices before we say or do something. Our capacity for self-restraint.
Ability to remain focused on the task at hand, despite distractions. Refers to the ability to regulate (not just "pay") attention--to filter both internal stimuli (e.g. thoughts & sensations) & external (e.g. people & things around us), adjusting the "volumes" to quiet down & disregard the extraneous, & attend to the relevant.
Ability to begin working on a task without procrastinating. Includes the ability to problem-solve & generate ideas & strategies for how to start something. Often influenced by our perceptions of the difficulty of task & our ability to succeed, how boring vs. engaging it seems, & other intrinsic & extrinsic motivators.
Ability to set & pursue a realistic goal, maintain efforts, remain on track, follow through until it is finished--not give up prematurely despite obstacles or competing interests. Influenced by the capacity for frustration tolerance & delayed gratification.
Ability to process & regulate feelings in efforts to alter our emotional state. Refers to our capacity to manage & respond to emotional experiences in the environment, in order to remain on-task & direct behavior towards pursuit of a goal.
Ability to adapt, adjust, & revise plans in light of new information, changes, or setbacks. Also refers to capacity for problem-solving, overcoming obstacles, seeing other perspectives, & "going with the flow." Includes ability to shift gears (task shifting) & transition between activities.
Ability to manage stress & cope with difficult, uncertain situations. Refers to our capacity to handle & thrive in fast-paced, high-stakes, or unpredictable environments with significant demands & increased pressure to perform.
© 2023 by Kayla Quadros, LMHC - The Craft + Compass
Executive Function Skills
As mentioned above, executive function can be broken down into a few or many skills, depending on how specifically you want to tease them apart. Some may lump skills together in a category, like "planning/prioritization/organization," whereas others would break those skills down into further individual ones with some overlapping, but distinct qualities. At the Craft + Compass, we like to zoom in on the skills more specifically to help us better pinpoint and target the challenges clients are facing. The better we understand that, the better we can address and overcome barriers to increase your success. Our approach is rooted in the work of Peg Dawson, Ph.D. and Richard Guare, Ph.D. (authors of the bestselling Smart but Scattered books).
Here's a list of the 12 executive function skills we assess and help you with here at the Craft + Compass:
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
The Link Between Executive Function + ADHD
What first comes to mind when you think about ADHD? Maybe you’re wondering if that’s the same thing as ADD? Or maybe it’s just the hyper version of ADD, instead of the flighty, forgetful, easily-distracted-by-a-squirrel type? Maybe you’re picturing a hyper 8 year old boy bouncing off the walls, getting in trouble at school for not listening and disrupting class? While these things might ring true for some folks with ADHD, these are overly simplistic stereotypes that can unfortunately reinforce the stigma of this condition. There are a lot of myths, misunderstandings, and confusion out there, so let’s start with the basics:
ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) and ADD (attention-deficit disorder) are the same thing. ADD is actually the old, outdated term for the disorder–the American Psychiatric Association officially changed the name to ADHD back in 1987 (people don’t like change, I guess…old habits die hard).
The truth is that ADHD is a very complex and nuanced neurodevelopmental disorder with a direct link to executive functioning.
Read on to learn more about this connection and dispel some common myths about ADHD:
What Everyone Needs To Know About ADHD
Neurobiology + Genetics
Studies have shown that ADHD is not a categorical disorder, meaning it's not as simple as "you either have it or you don't." Rather, it is more of a complex, continuous trait, ranging from nonexistent or mild to moderate to severe, that exists throughout the population. This means that ADHD-like symptoms occur in all people, to a certain extent. The ADHD diagnosis exists on the extreme end of this spectrum.
ADHD has a strong genetic component and runs in families. In fact, if one parent has ADHD, there's ~33-35% chance their child will have it (that doubles to 66% chance if both parents have it). A child with ADHD is 4x more likely to have a relative with it as well. Brain imaging, genetics studies, and twins studies reinforce the fact that ADHD is a neurobiological condition and that the ADHD brain is structurally different than the neurotypical brain.
“ADHD is a biologically based disorder and a developmental impairment of executive functions – the self-management system of the brain.”