Executive Function – Your Brain Explained

Executive Function. It’s one of those phrases thrown around by health professionals without explanation. But what does it actually mean?

Executive functions are a group of cognitive processes that we all use subconsciously every day. Without them, we would find it incredibly hard to get anything done! These skills include:

Organisation – Organising our thoughts and emotions so we can act on them.

Planning – Formulating and evaluating thoughts so we can make our next move. What are we going to do next? What is the most important thing to do first? When should we do that? 

Attention – Directing and maintaining our attention towards tasks

Working Memory – Keeping new information active in our minds so we can use it to perform a task.

Problem Solving – Implementing effective strategies to overcome challenging tasks or thoughts

Self-Monitoring – Monitoring and evaluating your own performance

Initiation – Our internal motivation to complete a task.

Inhibition – Tuning out distractions so we can focus on the task at hand.

Cognitive Flexibility – The ability to switch between tasks and adapt our behaviour or actions in response to the environment. 

Impulse Control – Stopping to think before acting

Emotional Regulation – Forming an appropriate behavioural or emotional response to particular situations. 

Executive Function Difficulties

Executive function difficulties are common in people who have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and other developmental delays and genetic conditions. But how do you know if your loved one has difficulty?

Children and adults with Executive Function difficulties often present with the following challenges:

  • Following instructions, particularly multi-step instructions.
  • Completing homework or assignments on time
  • Organising materials or belongings
  • Difficulty shifting between tasks
  • Managing time effectively
  • Problem solving without assistance
  • Controlling impulses
  • Following daily routines without reminders
  • Initiating tasks independently
  • Generating ideas without assistance
  • Procrastinating or becoming distracted
  • Retaining information while doing something with it (e.g. listening and writing at the same time).

Worried someone you know has difficulties with executive function? Don’t stress! Here are some simple strategies you can implement from today:

  • Delivery of instructions – Provide simple and clear instructions verbally, and have the person repeat the instruction back to you. It may also be useful to write down instructions so the person has something concrete to refer to.
  • Clarify understanding – Ensure the person understands the task, and knows what the expectations are. You might need to re-explain something!
  • Routine and structure – Keeping things predictable can help with organisation and the development of independence once things become familiar.
  • Break tasks down into smaller, achievable parts – This can reduce the feeling of overwhelming dread, and provides a sense of success once a section is completed.
  • Organise the environment – Make sure it is easy to find everything. Make use of boxes, labels, folders and other storage solutions.
  • Limit distractions – Turn the TV/music off, keep the environment clean and organised, work in a quiet space.

Need more help? Occupational Therapists are qualified to work with children, adults and families to support the development of executive function skills. Contact Therapy Alliance Group to book in with one of our fantastic OT’s.

We have Occupational Therapy appointments available in BeenleighChinchilla, and Toowoomba.  We also do consults via video conference with TeleTAGBook a phone consult now to discuss your specific therapy needs!

About the Author

Morgan Evitt
Occupational Therapist

Morgan graduated from the University of Queensland with First Class Honours and the Dean’s Commendation for Academic Excellence. She’s much more that just a smart cookie though. Her clinical experience across both adult and paediatric services in hospitals, the community and private practice have provided a solid foundation for her ongoing career at Therapy Alliance Group. Her previous work as a disability support worker, teacher aide for Autism Queensland and an Occupational Therapy Assistant prior to graduation have provided her with a deep understanding of what life is really like for children with special needs and their families. She has a real knack for engaging and relating to children and helping parents to understand exactly how to help their child. Things I like: Netball, trashy TV, outdoor adventures, and time spent with family and friends (particularly when food is involved). Things I don’t like: Insects and spiders. Favourite colour: Purple.

“Throw kindness around like confetti”            – Anonymous

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