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Saturday, May 8, 2010

What is Executive Functioning?

"Executive functions allow us to set goals and maintain focus, screen out distractions, check our progress and regulate feelings." (KidsMatter, 2009 p2)

Executive functioning is a brain function. It helps us to understand, remember and follow all the unspoken rules and processes involved in everyday life. If our executive functioning is effected by health issues or conditions such as Autism and ADHD it can have a significant effect on how we interact with others and learn in our environment.

The Elements of Executive Function

Queensland Health (2007) discusses six key areas which are effected by executive function. These include:
  1. Self-evaluation
  2. Planning
  3. Initiation
  4. Self-correction
  5. Problem-solving
  6. Inhibition
This month I want to focus on discussing each of these in more depth, and make suggestions about what strategies can be used to help address the issues that arise from each area.

What might it look like?

Let's first explore what difficulties with executive functioning may "look like" in children.

Getting ready for school

Imagine a child getting ready for school. They have to remember to follow a series of steps that look something like this:
  • Get out of bed
  • Eat breakfast
  • Clean your teeth
  • Get dressed
  • Pack your bag with everything you need for the day
  • Get to the bus stop by 8.00am
For most children they may require one or two prompts during the process... but generally they will get on the bus at the right time with all the equipment they need for the day.

For children with executive functioning issues, they will struggle to monitor time. They may focus on thoroughly doing each task, but miss the bus because they couldn't get organised in time. Or they may get distracted by cartoons, seeing a football that is just begging them to kick it, looking for something.... then forgetting what they were looking for.

They many need constant reminders of what to do next, which will probably make the morning a "little" ;) more stressful. And then mum or dad will probably need to check what they have packed to ensure they have not left any important things like pencil-cases and homework at home. And because they lost track of time, mum or dad may have to run them to school because they missed the bus.

At school

Despite having their bag checked by mum or dad, they may turn up to their first class without essential equipment (eg pencils and books). They will also find it hard to settle into class, finding it hard to start concentrating on the things that are important, like the teacher's instructions, as opposed to greeting friends or trying to find their favourite pen.

And when the teacher starts to teach, the child may call out regularly- not intending to disrupt, but because they have a thought they want to express, either on the topic the teacher is talking about or about something seemingly irrelevant but triggered by what the teacher said. They either don't recognise that is not an appropriate time to speak, or only think about this once they have started speaking.

And when they get out on the playground, they are more likely to get into tiffs or find it hard to maintain friendships because they tend to not think before they act. Which means they may hit or kick when they are angry, be excruciatingly truthful about what they think of their friends, be a bit bossy or struggle to wait their turn or share.

Back home

Then when they get home they discover they have left their bag at school, containing the homework that must be done by tomorrow. When they get to school the next day, they find the bag and discover that it contains rotting food since they forgot to eat it due to being distracted by all the fun on the playground.

When they get home they also find it very hard to be controlled in any way because they have spent so much of the day trying to follow rules and not to get in too much trouble at school. Which makes the first few hours after returning from school very hectic, and homework next to impossible, with the child usually being sent outside to kick a ball, jump on the trampoline or punch their punching bag until they feel better.

These are just some of the patterns of behaviour and interaction that you might see in a child who has difficulties with executive functioning. If this rings a bell with you as a parent or teacher, then I hope the next series of posts will be useful for you.


Kidsmatter (2009). How Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) affects children. Retrieved 8th May 2010 from

Queensland Health. (2007). Executive Function and Capacity. Retrieved 8th May, 2010 from


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Copyright Amanda Gray 2009-11

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