Executive Function: What’s That? EF Series Pt. 1

Executive function skills are crucial building blocks for the early development of both cognitive and social capacities.

Children need to develop these skills, too, in order to meet the many challenges they will faces on the road to becoming productive, contributing members of their communities.

Harvard Working Paper- Building the Brain’s Air Traffic Control System


It is a gray, gloomy day in Wyoming and I can’t think of a better day to kick off a blog series on a topic I have become deeply involved with – executive function. What is executive function? And why the heck should I care?

Executive function is perhaps the most ignored, least addressed, incredibly important area of success- academic, personal, life or otherwise.  It is our air traffic control center that helps us regulate, plan, modulate, organize and in very simplified terms: SUCCEED in school and in life.

The purpose of the next series of posts on this blog is to explore executive function and the implication that executive function has on students, academic achievement and success in life.  This first post is a general overview of executive function complied from my understanding and research that I have been conducting as part of my ongoing professional learning.

What is Executive Function?
Executive function is a larger term that describes the cognitive processes that we require to plan, organize, think flexibly and otherwise successfully navigate the cognitive tasks we  do every single day.  I like the analogy that executive function is like the air traffic control of your brain. Executive function is what makes it possible for us

Unlike many of the other processes that we are born knowing how to do, executive function skills are learned skills.

To better understand what executive function is, it helps to break this large, complex collection of cognitive tasks into smaller parts. There are multiple different ways to think about and group the components of executive function.  Understood.org has an excellent article that breaks the discrete part of executive function into eight parts: Impulse Control, Emotional Control, Flexible Thinking, Working Memory, Self-Monitoring, Planning and Prioritizing, Task Initiation and Organization.  Executive function

Impulse Control

Emotional Control

Flexible Thinking

Working Memory


Planning and Prioritizing

Task Initiation


Each of these areas has direct connections to what we ask students to do in school.  Over the past few years, I have been looking at the impact of weak executive function skills have on my students and what specifically I can do to help support my students who have significant deficits in many of these areas.

My next posts will be looking more in depth at each of these domains.  More specifically, I want to explore how each of these areas relates to school, what students who struggle in each area typically ‘look’ like and what strategies both teachers and families can use to support children who struggle with executive functioning deficits.

This blog series is my attempt to learn more about EF and how I can improve my classroom instruction and IEPs by better addressing executive functioning.  I have been collecting resources, researching and working closely with a colleague who has an equally high interest in EF in order to broaden my understanding in this area but I absolutely welcome comments, resources and any additional information that you, my readers, might be able to share!  I am also very excited to read Dr. Nancy Sulla’s new book Executive Function as the Missing Link to Student Achievement which will be coming out in June.  She has some excellent resources including this video which gives a great brief overview of executive function skills.

I’m looking forward to writing this series as I expand my knowledge on this crucial, overlooked topic.

Happy MLK Day!



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