Right Start Blog

What Do We Mean When We Say 'Executive Function' Skills?

By: Linda Rajacich
Learning Specialist Linda Rajacich demystifies the term 'executive function' skills and shares how The Country School imparts the knowledge for our students to gain self-awareness as to how they learn best.
If you had asked me 15 years ago what is meant by the phrase "executive function," I would have thought about an adult who works in the corporate world. I would have considered tasks such as meeting with clients, running staff meetings, and writing reports. I would have been wrong!

Johanna Calderon, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, defines executive functions as the set of cognitive processes “that help us focus, plan, prioritize, work toward goals, self-regulate behaviors and emotions, adapt to new and unexpected situations, and ultimately engage in abstract thinking and planning.” Upper School students at The Country School are learning about what this means in their lives, and why it is important. Lower School students learn about these skills through our Second Step curriculum. As a parent, the more you know, the more you can support this initiative.

One of my favorite educational books is Smart but Scattered by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare. In this book, the authors share 11 different but closely connected executive function skills that are critical to success in school, at home, and at work. Dawson and Guare identify the following as components of execution function:

  • Emotional Control - the ability to manage emotions to reach a goal, complete tasks, or direct behavior
  • Flexibility - the ability to revise plans due to setbacks, mistakes, or new information
  • Goal-Directed Persistence - the capacity to have a goal, follow it to completion, and not be distracted
  • Metacognition - the ability to take a bird's-eye view of oneself in a situation, to analyze and observe progress, and to create solutions to problems
  • Organization - the ability to create and maintain systems to keep track of information and materials
  • Planning - the ability to create a roadmap to reach a goal or complete a task
  • Response Inhibition - the capacity to think before acting
  • Sustained Attention - the capacity to maintain attention despite fatigue, boredom, or distractions
  • Task Initiation - the ability to begin projects or tasks in a timely manner
  • Time Management - the ability to estimate how much time is needed and then complete a task within that timeframe
  • Working Memory - the ability to hold information in memory while performing complex tasks. (1)

Our Upper School students have been learning about these skills in our Life Skills program, which is part of our Study Skills curriculum. They have taken notes on what each skill means, what it looks like in the real world, and have self-identified personal strengths and weaknesses. We have discussed how they interconnect, and how having strong executive function skills transfers to success. Students are also learning that developing these skills is a process that begins at birth and continues until the mid-20’s. Some might have stronger skills related to emotion and flexibility, while others may be fantastic at organization and planning. The important lesson is that everyone can work to improve on weaknesses and capitalize on strengths.

It is important to note that these skills are not about intelligence. A person with a high IQ could also be deficient in executive function. A person with average intelligence may be more successful than a high-IQ colleague due to better developed executive function skills. Consider the person who has created a masterful project but can’t meet a deadline, or a person who has creative ideas but can’t get started on a project, or the person who completes work at an A level but can’t find that work in order to turn it in.  

If you would like to learn more about Executive Function skills, please visit the Smart by Scattered website for more information. Or, better yet, ask your 5th-8th grader what he/she has learned!  

(1)  Definitions from Smart but Scattered.com, October 11, 2022.

Recent Posts

List of 5 news stories.

News Archive
© 2017 The Country School. All Rights Reserved.
The Country School does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, age, gender, nationality, ethnic origin, or sexual orientation in the administration of its educational, admission, and employment policies, or its financial aid, athletic, and other school administered programs.
716 Goldsborough Street, Easton, MD 21601 • 410.822.1935