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  • Bella P.

Executive Functions: The Invisible Architects of Our Successes

There are invisible architects and engineers working in our brains, orchestrating our mental processes. These gears are known as executive functions (EF), the mental processes that are the command center of our cognitive abilities; they are encompassed by a trio of core processes 1) working memory 2) cognitive flexibility and 3) inhibitory control.


This blog will hopefully help you understand what the different EF skills are, specific examples, challenges, and ways to improve. Save this blog to return when needing a refresher on tools to engage in to improve your EF. 

Working Memory

The ability to hold and manipulate information in mind Example: Remembering instructions while completing a task.

Cognitive Flexibility

The ability to shift attentional focus between different important tasks when the situation changes.

Example: Students ability to smoothly transition their focus and adjust their strategies in response to unexpected changes in assignment instructions. 

Inhibitory Control

The ability to manage our actions, feelings, and thoughts effectively in order to adapt to our environment.

Example: When a student refrains from interrupting their classmates during a discussion, allowing others to express their thoughts without disruption.

Understanding Executive Functions (EF)

Executive functions encompass a range of processes essential for self-regulation and goal-directed behavior. Here is a breakdown of the essential EF skills that were derived from the Behavioral Regulation Index (BRI) and the Metacognition Index (MI).


  1. Inhibition (BRI):

    1. Definition: The ability to control impulses, distractions, and automatic responses.

    2. Example: Resisting the urge to check social media while studying.

    3. Improvement: Turn on Do Not Disturb and put your phone in the next room.

  2. Shift (BRI):

    1. Definition: The capacity to switch between tasks or perspectives flexibly.

    2. Example: Transitioning from math homework to writing an English essay.

    3. Improvement: Engage in activities such as joining clubs to expose yourself to new ideas.

  3. Emotional Control (BRI):

    1. Definition: The skill to manage and regulate emotions appropriately.

    2. Example: Staying calm and composed during a challenging exam.

    3. Improvement: Practice relaxation techniques like deep breathing or write out your emotions in a journal. 

  4. Initiate (MI):

    1. Definition: The ability to start tasks independently and without procrastination.

    2. Example: Beginning a project as soon as it's assigned, rather than waiting until the last minute.

    3. Improvement: Break tasks into smaller, manageable steps and set clear deadlines for each.

  5. Working Memory (MI):

    1. Definition: The capacity to hold and manipulate information in mind temporarily.

    2. Example: Remembering instructions while performing a science experiment. 

    3. Improvement: Use mnemonic devices or chunking techniques to enhance memory retention.

  6. Plan/Organize (MI):

    1. Definition: The skill to create and follow through with structured plans or strategies.

    2. Example: Creating a study schedule for upcoming exams and sticking to it.

    3. Improvement: Utilize tools like planners or digital calendars to organize tasks and deadlines.

  7. Organization of Materials (MI):

    1. Definition: The ability to keep physical or digital materials orderly and accessible.

    2. Example: Keeping notebooks, textbooks, and study materials neatly organized in a designated space.

    3. Improvement: Establish a filing system or use color-coding methods to maintain organization between your projects/subjects.

  8. Monitor (MI):

    1. Definition: The capacity to assess one's progress and adjust strategies accordingly.

    2. Example: Checking comprehension while reading and rereading sections as needed.

    3. Improvement:

      1. Self-monitoring: Reflect on your performance and identify areas for improvement.

      2. Task-monitoring: Regularly evaluate your progress toward goals and adjust your approach as necessary. Utilize your planner to check your tasks and goals. 



While executive functions are crucial for navigating daily tasks and achieving academic success, various factors can impede their optimal functioning. Here are some common challenges associated with EF:

  1. Age-related Development:

    1. The prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain responsible for EF, undergoes significant development throughout childhood and adolescence. It does not fully mature until adulthood. 

    2. See image above. 

  2. Stress:

    1. When under stress, individuals may struggle with maintaining focus, inhibiting distractions, and effectively managing tasks.

  3. ADHD (Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder):

    1. ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by symptoms such as excessive motor activity, impulsivity, and inattention.

    2. Symptoms can interfere with EF skills, making it challenging for individuals to organize tasks, regulate emotions, and sustain attention.


Identifying and understanding these challenges is the first step towards implementing effective strategies to support individuals with EF difficulties. Through understanding their complexities, identifying challenges, and implementing targeted strategies, students can optimize their executive functioning in the classroom and at home. By prioritizing the development and refinement of these skills, we can pave the way for greater success and fulfillment in both academic and professional endeavors.


References

Cécillon, F.-X.; Mermillod, M.; Leys, C.; Lachaux, J.-P.; Le Vigouroux, S.; Shankland, R. Trait Anxiety, Emotion Regulation, and Metacognitive Beliefs: An Observational Study Incorporating Separate Network and Correlation Analyses to Examine Associations with Executive Functions and Academic Achievement. Children 2024, 11, 123.

Gogtay, N., Giedd, J. N., Lusk, L., Hayashi, K. M., Greenstein, D., Vaituzis, A. C., Nugent, T. F., 3rd, Herman, D. H., Clasen, L. S., Toga, A. W., Rapoport, J. L., & Thompson, P. M. (2004). Dynamic mapping of human cortical development during childhood through early adulthood. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 101(21), 8174–8179. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0402680101

Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. (2023). Cognitive Flexibility. ScienceDirect. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/cognitive-flexibility

The General Factor of Personality. (2017). Inhibitory Control. ScienceDirect. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/psychology/inhibitory-control

Trammell, Janet. “Development of Delinquent and Criminal Behavior.” Forensic Psychology. Pepperdine University. Malibu, CA. 10 October 2022. Lecture.



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