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What is Executive Function?

Executive function skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.


Executive Function Disorder (EFD) is a term that refers to weaknesses in the brain’s self-management system. In many ways, EFD and ADHD go hand in hand. Most of the symptoms of ADHD are actually problems with executive function and the signs of each are very similar. However, there is one big difference between the two ...


ADHD is an official diagnosis. Executive Function Disorder is not. But, people with ADHD have weak executive functioning.


Executive function skills depend on three types of brain function: working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control. These functions are highly interrelated, and the successful application of executive function skills requires them to operate in coordination with each other. People with ADHD or EFD can have strengths in some EF areas and deficits in others.

  • Working memory governs our ability to retain and manipulate distinct pieces of information over short periods of time.

  • Mental flexibility helps us to sustain or shift attention in response to different demands or to apply different rules in different settings.

  • Self-control enables us to set priorities and resist impulsive actions or responses.

People with EFD may find these daily tasks challenging:

  • Keeping track of time

  • Conceptualizing how long a task will take

  • Making plans

  • Getting started on a task

  • Staying focused during a task

  • Following instructions

  • Prioritizing what to focus on

  • Organizing thoughts

  • Applying previously learned information to solve problems

  • Staying in control of their emotions

  • Misinterpreting nonverbal cues like facial expressions

  • Making and maintaining friendships

Children aren’t born with these skills—they are born with the potential to develop them. Most often, people with ADHD or EFD may not develop these necessary skills without intervention. Coaches, families and schools can facilitate the development of a child’s executive function skills by establishing routines, modeling social behavior, and creating and maintaining supportive, reliable relationships.

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