What is Executive Functioning, and Why is it Important?

Whether you are aware of it or not, executive functioning plays a huge role in our lives. According to researchers at Cornell University, we as individuals make approximately 35,000 decisions a day. 35,000. That seems like a lot, but once you think about it, it kind of makes sense. From the moment your alarm clock goes off, or you are woken up by your child/pet/partner/the sun, you are constantly making decisions. You decide to open your eyes, turn off your alarm, say “good morning,” pull the covers down, sit up from lying down, stand up, find your slippers...etc. No wonder we are all exhausted.

Most of us make relatively “good” decisions throughout the day; decisions that allow us to stay healthy, practice good hygiene, maintain a job, have good relationships, and more. I, like many of us I believe, am guilty of staying up too late, or not planning ahead of time, which are not necessarily “good” decisions. However, I would estimate out of the 35,000 I make a day, a decent chunk of them would fall into the “good” category.


How am I able to make good decisions throughout the day? I have my executive functioning skills to thank here! Broadly, executive functions include:

a. Awareness that a specific *thing* needs to be done

b. Doing something that moves you towards accomplishing that *thing,* and not doing something that moves you away from that *thing*

c. Constantly assessing that what you are doing is moving you toward accomplishing that *thing,* despite other distractions.

(from The Source for Development of Executive Functions, Richard/Fahy, 2005)


A simple example of a *thing* may be brushing your teeth. Let’s go through the process:
a. You just finished eating breakfast. You become aware that you need to brush your teeth, because you want to keep your teeth clean and healthy, and in order to do that, you should brush your teeth at least 2 times per day.

b. You decide to walk to the bathroom, get your toothbrush and toothpaste, and avoid crawling back into bed even though you are still tired and your bed looks very inviting.

c. You hear your phone go off, and you may look at it and see it is just a text that is not urgent, so you continue towards the bathroom to brush your teeth instead of answering.

Whew, that’s a lot of decisions you just made!

Executive functions are typically divided into four categories:

  1. Attention and self-control: can attend to relevant information, chooses not to attend to irrelevant information, controls impulses
  2. Information processing: can take sensory information from the environment and process it/react to it as necessary
  3. Flexible, purposeful behavior: can shift tasks or attention as necessary, learns from mistakes, adapts to changing environments quickly
  4. Goal setting and achievement: can develop goals and ways to accomplish them, can anticipate possible outcomes and challenges, is able to self-monitor oneself and achieve goals

Executive functions look different for all individuals at all ages. Most three year olds are not able to brush their teeth two times a day without reminders and support from their caregivers, but they are probably able to complete some of this task on their own, e.g. use their toothbrush to brush some of their teeth (even if that only lasts for about 5-10 seconds). All children develop at their own general pace, so it is normal if they can accomplish this at 2 years old or not until they are 4 years old. The table below highlights some executive functioning skills and approximate age ranges. They are not concrete, as many of these skills are constantly developing into adulthood. These skills may be emerging, developing, or established.

Age Executive Functions
6-12 months Attends to things for longer amounts of time (still minimal)
Behavior is reflexive (not flexible)
1-2 years Inhibits some reflexive behaviors inconsistently
Shifts attention to new things in environment
3-6 years Increases impulse control, attention, and concentration
Resists some distractions
Follows 2-4 step tasks
Demonstrates knowledge of rules
7-9 years Performs self-talk (talking to themselves to work through a task)
Processes new information faster and more accurately
Resists more distractions
Develops goals
Learns from mistakes and creates alternatives
Switches between tasks
10-12 years Increases impulse control, attention, and concentration for longer periods of time
Switches between multiple tasks
Learns from mistakes and creates alternatives more frequently
Plans and organizes tasks more effectively
Adolescence Increases working memory capacity
Increases cognitive flexibility
Able to plan and organize more complex tasks
Demonstrates better decision making and goal selection skills

Why is executive functioning important?

Executive functioning is important because it affects nearly all aspects of one’s life; from everyday tasks, to school/work responsibilities, to interpersonal relationships. Our executive functions allow us to eat balanced meals, do laundry, and not stay up all night. They allow us to get to work on time, take tests, and complete job duties. They allow us to selectively pay attention to individuals, engage in conversation, shift topics, and not get distracted by other things in the environment. Like pragmatic language skills , without having sound executive function skills, daily tasks may be severely affected.

Who may have executive functioning difficulties?

Individuals with autism, attention deficit disorders, or developmental disabilities may have executive functioning difficulties. Adults who had a stroke or brain injury may exhibit executive functioning difficulties as well.

What can I do?

If you believe a child or loved one may have executive functioning deficits relative to their age, a speech-language pathologist (SLP) may complete an evaluation. As with most evaluations, they typically include formal and informal measures. Formal measures include standardized assessments, and informal measures included questionnaires, interviews, and observations.


Thank you for making 1000 or so decisions as you read this whole article (reading each word, scrolling on your device, inhibiting other distractions, and more)! As always, we are happy to answer any questions you may have. Leave us a comment below or email us at communicationcommunityslp@gmail.com

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