What are Executive Functions?
According to the Ministry of Education of Ontario’s research monograph #63,
Executive function emphasizes higher-order meta-cognitive skills, including working memory (the ability to hold and work with information for short periods of time), inhibitory control (the ability to manage and filter thoughts and impulses), and cognitive flexibility (the ability to switch mental gears) (Tranter & Kerr, 2016).
In this module, we will define executive functions as a term used to describe the many different cognitive processes that students use to control their behavior and to connect past experience with present action. Note that the specific skills encapsulated within the executive functions may vary depending on the source referenced. The executive functioning skills that will be covered in this module are:
- Working memory
- Task initiation
- Cognitive flexibility
- Emotional control
- Impulse control
The following video provides a brief introduction to executive functions. For a more detailed introduction to this topic, click here to access the article Executive Functions and Learning Disabilities.
Executive Functions in Education
Executive functions are defined and discussed, with regard to their impact on student behaviour, in the Ministry of Education’s document, Caring and Safe Schools in Ontario: Supporting Students with Special Education Needs Through Progressive Discipline, Kindergarten to Grade 12 (2010).
“The term “executive function” is used to describe a set of cognitive processes that help students connect past experiences with present actions. Students use executive function when they perform such activities as planning, organizing, strategizing, and paying attention to and remembering details. Executive function also enables students to manage their emotions and monitor their thoughts in order to work more efficiently and effectively (Guare & Dawson, 2004). Students with executive function deficits have difficulty with planning, organizing, and managing time and space. They also show weakness with working memory, which is an important tool in guiding one’s actions.” – p.25
Another way to think of executive functions is to use an analogy. Some professionals consider executive functions as the conductor of an orchestra or an air traffic controller, guiding thinking and behaviour. Others take the analogy a step further, comparing executive functions to a “team of conductors of a mental ability orchestra” (Dr. Marc Crundwell in the webinar Strengthening Executive Functioning Skills in the Classroom). In this analogy, different conductors lead different areas and must work together to achieve successful results.
Ontario. Ministry of Education. (2010). Caring and Safe Schools in Ontario: Supporting Students with Special Education Needs Through Progressive Discipline, Kindergarten to Grade 12. Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/general/elemsec/speced/Caring_Safe_School.pdf
Tranter, D., & Kerr, D. (2016). Understanding Self-Regulation: Why Stressed Students Struggle to Learn. What Works? Research into Practice (Research monograph # 63). Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/literacynumeracy/inspire/research/ww_struggle.pdf