What is Executive Function?

Executive function refers to a variety of mental abilities of the brain we develop in order to be able to attend, sustain information in our head, resist impulses, shift our attention between different ideas, plan and organize an approach, problem-solve different situations, and control our emotions. Different researchers and professionals have different lists of which mental abilities are considered to be part of these functions. For the purposes of this article, I will using information compiled by Dr. Gioia and his colleagues when they created the BRIEF (Behavior Rating of Executive Function). This is an assessment I used daily in my practice as a pediatric occupational therapist in order to assess executive function.

A List of Executive Functions

1. Inhibition: the ability to resist impulses and stop our behavior as appropriate.

2. Shift: the ability to move freely from one situation, activity, or idea to another.

3. Emotional Control: the ability to regulate our emotional responses.

4. Initiation: the ability to begin a task and/or generate ideas independently.

5. Working Memory: the ability to sustain information in our heads during a task.

6. Planning/Organization: the ability to organize present and future ideas.

7. Organization of Materials: the ability to maintain orderliness with our things.

8. Self-Monitor: the ability to maintain awareness of the impact of our behavior on others.


Good executive function abilities are critical for the development of academic, social, behavioral and emotional skills in children. They support their ability to become independent in their daily living tasks at home and school, behave consciously and maintain relationships. These abilities also enable children to learn healthy self-regulation strategies. That is why executive function and self-regulation go hand in hand. Refer to my post on What is Self-Regulation to learn more.

The Center on The Developing Child from Harvard University explain that children aren’t born with these skills but with the capacity to development. Adults are responsible to guide children to build these skills at home, school or around in the community. Through play we have the opportunity to teach children how to wait, be flexible, generate ideas, hold information in their minds, organize their ideas and materials and monitor their own behavior.


Poor Inhibition:

Poor inhibitory control will result in children that are impulsive. Younger kids have a hard time taking turns, asking before pulling a toy from someone else’s hands, learning how to wait, and developing safety awareness skills. Older kids have difficulty following instructions, considering consequences before acting and matching their behavior to a situation. Children with poor inhibition seem to be less in control of themselves than their peers, often get out of their seat at the wrong time and interrupt others.

Poor Shift

Children with a poor ability to shift will struggle with transitions. Transitions between activities (e.g. from play time to bed time), from one place to another (e.g. playground to home), from one idea to another (e.g. following others ideas in play). These kids have problems tolerating change in general. They seem rather inflexible in their thinking and often get stuck on ideas.

Poor Emotional Control:

Poor emotional control results in sudden emotional outbursts that can even be triggered by small events. Children with poor emotional control will react strongly than other children and often overreact to the little things. These kids will often have temper tantrums and will have difficulties participating in competitive games (winning/losing).

Poor Initiation:

Children with poor initiation require assistance to get started, begin generating ideas or problem-solving independently. These kids may seem uninterested or noncompliant but in reality, what is happening is that they have trouble initiating tasks. They need frequent verbal reminders to begin activities (e.g. homework at home).

Poor Working Memory:

When children have a poor working memory they will have difficulty carrying out multistep activities. This will in turn have an effect on their attention and their ability to remain focused on a task. They need more assistance than other children their age to stay on task. Children will often perform poorly in mathematics as they will struggle to complete calculations in their mind.

Poor Planning/Organization:

Poor ability to plan and organize ideas results in difficulties anticipating future events and develop appropriate sequential steps ahead of time to meet a goal. Children often get caught up in details missing the big picture. Older will struggle for plan for school assignments and are more likely to get overwhelmed by large assignments. This will also have an effect on their ability to manage time and will need assistance to complete tasks in a timely manner.

Poor Organization of Materials:

Children with poor ability to organize materials will be messy. They will struggle to organize their playroom, bedroom, backpack, locker, etc.) They need assistance in order get their backpack ready for school the next day or finding objects they need. Children also need verbal reminders to clean-up after themselves.

Poor Self-Monitor:

Children with poor skills in this area need help monitoring their behavior in social situations. They will have limited awareness of their behavior and how it may impact others around them in day-to-day social interactions. Children will not realize certain actions are bothersome to others or cause negative reactions and often show a poor understanding of their strengths and their weaknesses.

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