Executive Functioning

There is no single disorder of executive functioning. Developmental neuropsychology uses executive functioning abilities to denote a number of different areas of daily functioning often seen for children in school and the home environment. 


  • Planning & decision making: organizing one’s choices and being effective about carrying out the completion of a task. 

  • Working memory: Ability to adopt, maintain, & shift the cognitive set in an organized strategic way. 

  • Monitor performance: Track the plan for the work that needs to be completed, correct oneself, respond to feedback.

  • Overriding habits/inhibition: Ability to choose a more complex and effortful solution to be correct and knowing when to let go of a strategy that is not fruitful. The ability to resist or inhibit impulses to respond to salient aspects of the task that needs to be done.

  • Awareness: Knowing and understanding task relevant information & when to apply mental flexibility to get through a task’s completion.  

  • Feedback/error utilization: Ability to benefit from feedback to infer rules for solving problems. 

  • Mental/cognitive flexibility: Ability to shift between 2 concepts (from number to letter; from verbal to practical solutions; from adding to ordering numbers; from ordering objects by size to ordering by color).

Executive functioning difficulties and differences are a spectrum ranging from mild to more significant deficits impacting a person’s functioning. When a neuropsychological and educational evaluation/assessment reveals that a child, teenager, or young adult indeed has executive functioning weaknesses there are ways to address skill sets to improve overall functioning. Learning specialists, tutors, and executive functioning coaches work with students to address areas of difficulty.

Executive functions gradually develop and change across the lifespan of an individual and can be improved at any time over the course of a person's life. Similarly, these cognitive processes can be adversely affected by a variety of events which affect an individual. Historically, the executive functions have been seen as regulated by the prefrontal regions of the frontal lobes, but it is still a matter of ongoing debate if that really is the case. Even though articles on prefrontal lobe lesions commonly refer to disturbances of executive functions and vice versa, a review found indications for the sensitivity but not for the specificity of executive function measures to frontal lobe functioning. This means that both frontal and non-frontal brain regions are necessary for intact executive functions. Probably the frontal lobes need to participate in basically all of the executive functions, but they are not the only brain structure involved.

Inhibitory control and working memory are among the earliest executive functions to appear, with initial signs observed in infants, 7 to 12-months old. Then in the preschool years, children display a spurt in performance on tasks of inhibition and working memory, usually between the ages of 3 to 5 years. Also, during this time, cognitive flexibility, goal-directed behavior, and planning begin to develop. Nevertheless, preschool children do not have fully mature executive functions and continue to make errors related to these emerging abilities – often not due to the absence of the abilities, but rather because they lack the awareness to know when and how to use particular strategies in particular contexts.

Preadolescent children continue to exhibit certain growth spurts in executive functions, suggesting that this development does not necessarily occur in a linear manner, along with the preliminary maturing of particular functions as well. During preadolescence, children display major increases in verbal working memory; goal-directed behavior (with a potential spurt around 12 years of age); response inhibition and selective attention; and strategic planning and organizational skills. Additionally, between the ages of 8 to 10, cognitive flexibility in particular begins to increase. However, similar to patterns in childhood development, executive functioning in preadolescents is limited because they do not reliably apply these executive functions across multiple contexts as a result of ongoing development of inhibitory control.

Although many executive functions may begin in childhood and preadolescence, such as inhibitory control, it is during adolescence when the different brain systems become better integrated. At this time, youth implement executive functions, such as inhibitory control, more efficiently and effectively and improve throughout this time period. Just as inhibitory control emerges in childhood and improves over time, planning and goal-directed behavior also demonstrate an extended time course with ongoing growth over adolescence. Likewise, functions such as attentional control, with a spurt at age 15, along with working memory, continue developing at this stage.

The major change that occurs in the brain in young adulthood is the constant myelination of neurons in the prefrontal cortex. At age 20–29, executive functioning skills are at their peak, which allows people of this age to participate in some of the most challenging mental tasks. These skills begin to decline in later adulthood. There are a number of neuropsychological theoretical models that define, describe, and elaborate on executive functioning skills and abilities across the lifespan.