Executive Function is an umbrella term that refers to brain functions that activate, organize, integrate and manage other functions. It enables individuals to account for short and long term consequences of their actions and to plan for those results. It also allows individuals to make real time evaluations of their actions, and make necessary adjustments if those actions are not achieving the desired result.
Academic success, and subsequent occupational success, is contingent on strong executive skills. When someone experiences deficits in executive skills, they encounter many issues including: disorganization, difficulty getting started and finishing work, remembering homework, difficulty memorizing facts, writing essays or reports, working complex math problems, remembering what is read, completing long-term projects, being on time, controlling emotions, and planning for the future. Dr. Tom Brown, an expert in the area of Executive Function, provides a useful metaphor by comparing executive function to the role of the conductor in an orchestra.
Dr. Russell Barkley, a noted authority on ADHD, reported that 89-98 percent of children with ADHD have deficits in executive skills. Dr. Barkley believes that evaluating and understanding a person’s executive function, breaking it down across several domains, is a better predictor of real world functioning than merely reporting they have a deficit.
Executive function can be broken down into six different clusters:
1. Activation: Organizing, Prioritizing and Getting Started on Tasks (getting started; paying attention; organizing time, projects, materials, and possessions, finishing work)
2. Focus: Focusing, Maintaining and Shifting Attention (changing activities, stopping existing activity, stopping and thinking before acting or speaking)
3. Effort: Regulating Alertness, Sustaining Effort, Processing Speed (complex problem solving).
4. Emotion: Managing Frustrations and Regulating Emotions (ability to tolerate frustration; thinking before acting or speaking)
5. Memory: Using Working Memory and Accessing Recall (holding facts in mind while manipulating information; accessing facts stored in long-term memory.)
6. Action: Monitoring and Self-Regulating Action (self-monitoring and prompting, using "self-talk" to control one's behavior and direct future actions)
The benefit to understanding which area(s) of executive function are impaired is to allow for recommendations for accommodations and support to be made with the hope of helping the individual to be more successful.