What is executive function?

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Cliff Weitzman
By Cliff Weitzman Dyslexia & Accessibility Advocate, CEO/Founder of Speechify in ADHD on June 27, 2022
What is executive function, and why is it important? Find out why this mental skill set is essential and what happens if a person has executive dysfunction.

    Working and performing everyday tasks is challenging or impossible without a particular skill set. That skill set is known as executive function.

    Let’s dig into these capabilities.

    Explaining executive function and executive dysfunction

    Executive function is a skill set that includes critical mental abilities. You use them daily when working, learning, and performing other essential activities.

    Many people refer to executive functioning as the brain’s management system. This is because the abilities involved allow you to set and execute goals.

    Executive function includes three areas.

    • Working memory
    • Inhibitory control (self-control or self-regulation)
    • Cognitive flexibility (flexible thinking)

    As it involves various areas of the brain, it’s responsible for managing numerous skills:

    • Paying attention
    • Planning, organization, and prioritization
    • Following checklists
    • Staying focused
    • Regulating emotions
    • Self-monitoring (keeping track of your progress)

    The development of executive function starts in early childhood. You continue to build these skills well into your 20s.

    According to neuroscience research, young kids might lag behind their peers for some time but usually face fewer obstacles as they age.

    However, certain difficulties when you’re still young can turn into long-term executive dysfunction. If the above skills have an inhibition, it results in struggles with focusing, following directions, and handling emotions.

    And when you have difficulty with your executive function, it can impact you in school, daily life, and work.

    While executive function problems aren’t a learning disability or diagnosis, they’re common in individuals who think and learn differently. For example, those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have difficulty developing essential cognitive skills.

    The same goes for persons with dyslexia and autism. These conditions hinder normal child development, leading to poor decision-making, social skills, and time management.

    The disorders can cause learning problems, but this doesn’t mean the affected individuals aren’t as intelligent or diligent as their peers. In fact, they may have superior problem-solving skills due to higher creativity.

    Symptoms of executive dysfunction

    Struggles with executive functions affect individuals differently. They have unique mental processes, which results in the following difficulties:

    • Struggling to prioritize tasks and organize thoughts
    • Problems starting and completing tasks
    • Limited short-term memory
    • Having trouble following steps or directions
    • Inefficient time management and multitasking
    • Struggles to keep track of belongings
    • Poor emotion regulation
    • Panicking when routines or rules change
    • Potential causes of executive dysfunction

    There’s been extensive research into potential causes of executive dysfunction. Here are the three primary factors:

    Genetic issues

    Executive function disorders typically run in the family. If you have a parent or grandparent with this problem, you’re more likely to suffer from it.

    Differences in brain chemistry or development

    Scientists have looked for the roots of executive function in the brain. They’ve discovered that certain areas develop slower in individuals who struggle with these problems.

    For instance, they might be unable to control emotions and memorize things due to delayed prefrontal cortex maturation.

    Co-occurring conditions

    Executive function deficits can happen if you have certain co-occurring conditions. They make your brain deteriorate and impair your executive abilities. Some of the most common circumstances and conditions that can lead to this problem include:

    • Brain tumors (benign and malignant)
    • Alzheimer’s disease
    • Cerebral hypoxia (brain damage due to insufficient oxygen)
    • Various types of dementia
    • Seizures and epilepsy
    • Traumatic brain injury, concussions, and other head injuries
    • Huntington’s disease
    • Infections (those that lead to meningitis or encephalitis)
    • Stroke
    • Multiple sclerosis
    • Toxins (e.g., carbon monoxide poisoning)

    How to improve executive function skills

    There are numerous ways to improve your and your child’s executive function skills:

    • Use visual representations – Representing your schedule with visual elements and color-coding individual time blocks are beneficial interventions. They allow you to stay on top of your obligations and organize yourself so you don’t miss anything.
    • Employ technology – Various tools, such as progress tracking apps, remind you of your goals and track progress as you record your achievements. They’re especially beneficial for young children, telling them when to do homework, review notes, and prepare their backpacks.
    • Improvise – Improvisation goes a long way in enhancing cognition. Activities like theater, dancing, and jazz encourage and nurture creativity. They teach you to adapt to rhythms on the go, which translates to better improvisation skills.
    • Rely on sticky notes – Compensate for your poor working memory by making important information visible with sticky notes, cards, lists, and journals. Once you see the information right in front of you, you’ll jog your executive function.
    • Incorporate rewards – If you or your kid has executive function challenges, finding the motivation to complete tasks is challenging. To address this, set up a rewards system to encourage yourself and your young one to stay on track.
    • Get a different perspective on deadlines – You should view deadlines as a good thing that forces you to push forward and make decisions. This will help you commit to your deadlines and start focusing on vital tasks while ignoring distractions.
    • Take breaks – Practice takes a toll on your mind and body. You can deplete your executive function if you work too hard over short periods (like when taking tests). Therefore, take breaks during stressful activities to refuel.

    Hone executive function with the Speechify text to speech app

    Overcoming executive dysfunction is complex, but you’re not alone. You can use several tools to make your journey easier, such as Speechify.

    This text to speech (TTS) platform effectively addresses a wide range of executive function issues. There are natural-sounding HD voices that make listening more enjoyable. You can listen to voices in over 60 languages.

    Whether reading a PDF or Docs file, you can transform it into convenient speech.

    Plus, it’s great for children who struggle to pay attention to written content. It emphasizes words as it reads them aloud to help kids concentrate.

    You can get an even better taste of Speechify by trying it yourself. The productivity tools can work wonders for your mental health.


    What is executive function in ADHD?

    People with ADHD have limited executive functioning. They often make impulsive actions because they can’t regulate their emotions appropriately.

    What are the implications of a deficit in executive function?

    Most people with executive dysfunction struggle to set schedules, stick to tasks, and organize thoughts. Their emotional control is also impaired.

    What are the 3 main executive functions?

    The three main executive functions are working memory, self-control, and flexible thinking.

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    Cliff Weitzman

    Cliff Weitzman

    Cliff Weitzman is a dyslexia advocate and the CEO and founder of Speechify, the #1 text-to-speech app in the world, totaling over 100,000 5-star reviews and ranking first place in the App Store for the News & Magazines category. In 2017, Weitzman was named to the Forbes 30 under 30 list for his work making the internet more accessible to people with learning disabilities. Cliff Weitzman has been featured in EdSurge, Inc., PC Mag, Entrepreneur, Mashable, among other leading outlets.

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