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What are executive function skills?

Understanding executive function skills and how they relate to ADHD will help you better support your struggling student.

What are executive function skills?

If your child has ADHD or other learning differences, you may have come across the term “executive function skills” while researching. Many parents have a general concept of EFS, but it really helps to have a concrete understanding to provide and seek support for your child. Otherwise, you may find yourself wasting time and money, or trying strategies or ‘treatments’ that are ineffective or even harmful. So, what are executive function skills?


Types of executive function skills


There’s been a lot of research conducted on executive functioning, giving rise to a broad range of definitions and included skills. Despite all the definitions out there, executive function skills always fall into at least one of three categories: working memory, flexible thinking, and inhibitory control. These concepts are described in a 2013 paper in the Annual Review of Psychology:


Working memory

Holding information in mind and mentally working with it, ie. relating one thing to another or using information to solve a problem


Working memory is necessary in school for things like remembering new concepts, understanding context, and following instructions.


Cognitive flexibility

Changing perspectives or approaches to a problem, flexibly adjusting to new demands, rules, or priorities, ie. switching between tasks


Students need cognitive flexibility skills to adapt to classroom transitions, understand other students’ points of view, and grasp abstract concepts.


Inhibitory control

Being able to control one’s attention, behavior, thoughts, and/or emotions to override a strong internal predisposition or external lure, and instead do what’s more appropriate or needed


In the classroom, students with lower inhibitory control might be impatient, speak without being called on, begin tasks without fully understanding an assignment, and interrupt others. Inhibitory control can cause personal issues for students with their instructors and their peers.


Examples of executive functioning skills


Setting goals & organizing are executive function skills

According to a paper from the National Center for Education Research (NCER), executive function skills are “required to engage in the goal-directed control of thought, action, and emotions” and are “needed for various kinds of behavior, including persistence, being able to focus on several things at once, shifting easily between tasks, and reflective learning.” It’s easy to see why executive function challenges can have a significant impact on a child’s academic performance. Some of the tasks, behaviors, or skills students with EF challenges might struggle with include:


Setting goals

Students need goal-setting skills to choose their degree program or classes and know what grades they need to pass them. These skills are also critical when applying for, and eventually working at a job, and in their extracurricular activities.


Prioritizing, planning & organizing

Completing assignments on time and studying for tests requires organizing class materials, prioritizing what needs to be done first, and planning time to do the work.


Initiating tasks

Getting started is half of the battle. Students with EF challenges can often struggle to start tasks, whether due to distractions, perfectionism, fear of failure, or any number of other obstacles.


Emotional regulation & inhibiting responses

School can be stressful, especially for students who are already struggling academically. This can lead to frustration, anger, procrastination, or falling into the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. To succeed, students need to be able to regulate their emotions and avoid relying on negative ingrained habits and emotions to relieve stress.



Successful students understand their strengths and weaknesses and work to improve outcomes. To do this, they need to be able to independently monitor their thoughts and behaviors.


Is it possible to learn and improve executive function skills?


Absolutely! People aren’t born with executive function skills, but rather develop them over their lifetime. This process is more challenging for children with ADHD, who are born with brain differences that directly impact EFS. Despite the challenge, children and adolescents can improve their executive function skills. And the sooner they do, the sooner they can apply them in school and other areas of their life. 


While major life transitions are often more disruptive for adolescents with EFS weaknesses, they are the perfect opportunity to build new skills. Students with disabilities moving from high school to college, or college to the workforce, may benefit even more from EF skills interventions during these times of transition. Just because a student struggled in school as a child, doesn’t mean they can’t succeed as a teen or adult – it’s never too late. Resources from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University note that “practicing core life skills during adolescence helps the brain build the most efficient pathways to support these skills throughout life.” 


How does coaching help with executive function skills?


Executive function skills are necessary for school and studyingThe ultimate goal of academic coaching is to help students improve their executive function skills to achieve academic success. However, the great thing about developing their EFS for better academic performance is that they’re also able to apply their new and developed skills to life overall. Coaches teach students how to find and organize course materials, set study schedules, and better manage their time and responsibilities. Through this partnership, students learn how to apply these skills across all of their courses and other areas of their life. Students are held accountable for their action plans by their coaches. This process ensures that students are continuing to build executive functioning skills, and eventually apply them independently. 


If your high school or college student is struggling with executive functioning, an academic coach can help. Hundreds of Thrivister students have built the skills they need to succeed in school and life. College student Fiona had this to say about her experience: “I was so worried about being able to succeed in my chosen field. Michelle has helped me look to my future career and to structure my time to become much more organized, and I cannot thank her enough for her continuous support.” Parent Alison shared that her student “learned organizational skills that keep her headed in the right direction, making her more successful both in class and in extracurricular activities” through the coaching process.


Learn more about academic coaching on our How It Works page, meet our coaches, or reach out for more information.

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Disclaimer We’re not healthcare professionals. This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition. It also should

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