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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anna L. Patton

What is Executive Functioning Anyway?

Updated: Sep 17, 2021

CES Consultant, Dr. Anna L. Patton, sheds light on this educational #HotTopic

Executive Functions are a group of brain activities that allow you to get things done. (Dr. Marydee Skylar, author of Seeing My Time ®)

If you are connected to education in any capacity--student, educator, parent--you have certainly heard the term Executive Functioning. However, a clear definition is often missing from conversations about these important cognitive skills.

The ever-changing nature of the brain and what we know about it is a key reason a cohesive definition is hard to find with a simple Google search. What any number of resources will agree upon is that executive functions are those mental actions that allow a person to plan, implement, and conclude tasks. From its broadest view, the three most influential executive functions are metacognition, working memory, and emotional regulation as these three skills are most likely to impact all others (Skylar, 2012).

Metacognition is the first of the three foundational elements under the Executive Functioning umbrella. Metacognition is often referred to as "thinking about thinking." Even with a Ph.D. in Philosophy of Education, that phrase still makes my head spin! I prefer to explain metacognition as the brain's ability to stop and pause before choosing an action. Needless to say, this skill is one that both parents and educators encounter on a daily basis when working with students. If you catch yourself exclaiming, "what were you thinking!" to your child or student after doing something rash, illogical, or dangerous, a lack of metacognition might be the culprit. When students have underdeveloped metacognition, they may not yet have the full capacity to stop, think, and make an appropriate choice.

The second central Executive Function is working memory. As opposed to long-term memory that stores information indefinitely, working memory is the brain's capacity to hold information in mind while actively working on tasks. Working memory is what you use when someone asks you to remember a phone number for them while they look something else up. Poor or developing working memory is also why you might find yourself repeating the same instructions to your students or children over and over. Building working memory skills helps your students and children attend to multi-step instructions, to complicated academic subjects, and to balance multiple expectations.

Finally, emotional regulation is the third core Executive Function. Emotional regulation is a complex and lifelong process of development for all people, not just students. This Executive Function is possessing the self-awareness of one's emotions and their impacts on thinking and behavior. Emotional regulation has a tremendous role in successfully navigating other mental activities; after all, it is pretty difficult to think before you act when you are angry, lonely, sleepy, or in some other strong emotional state. Emotional regulation is not the same as ignoring or suppressing emotion, but instead, it is bringing awareness to what is going on in our students' emotional lives. Emotional regulation strengthens one's ability to regulate, reset, and resume activity during emotionally turbulent experiences.

In addition to the principal three mental abilities above, researchers have identified up to nine additional executive functioning skills:

  • Mental Flexibility: adapting to changing environments and conditions

  • Goal-directed Persistence: seeing tasks through to completion, especially tasks that are not preferred

  • Organization: developing and using systems to provide order and structure to both tasks and physical objects

  • Planning/Prioritizing: making plans and decisions successfully about what to complete and how

  • Response Inhibition: looking before you leap

  • Stress Tolerance: persisting through difficult activities or events

  • Sustained Attention: keeping the mind on task with little supervision or reminders

  • Task Initiation: getting started, in a time-conscious manner, without prompting

  • Time Management: estimating and using time constraints successfully

The brain houses these skills in the prefrontal cortex, which is still developing through the mid-2os. The great news is that the brain is a muscle, which means it can be trained and strengthened. At CES, we can work with you and your students on building these skills both in the classroom and out. Use the ‘Contact’ tab to get in touch about Executive Functioning training!


Dawson, P. & Guare, R. (2021). “Definition of Terms.” Smart But Scattered Kids. Retrieved from:

Skylar, M. (2012). "Seeing My Time: Visual Tools for Executive Functioning Success." Executive Functioning Success. Portland, OR: Aguanga Publishing.

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