What is Executive Functioning?

Executive Functioning: You’ve heard the term used SO many times in relation to ADHD, but executive functioning skills are something EVERYONE needs and learns. But what IS executive functioning? How do you know if it’s a problem for you?

Have you ever wondered how we manage to get through our day-to-day tasks, make decisions, and plan for the future, all while navigating the complexities of life? It turns out there’s a key player behind the scenes in our brains, aptly named executive functioning.

Some people compare executive functioning to the job of a CEO, but I’d add that it’s like a CEO of a very small business with no employees. And that CEO is stumbling around, trying to figure out how to run this new business. Those of us with executive functioning deficits are trying to start a small business with no funding or limited funding. Those of us who aren’t born with those deficits are starting the same small business with a bank loan or investors.

As we get older- aka more experienced in our business- we know more. We can perform the skills better and faster.

Executive functioning involves a series of mental skills that help us manage our thoughts, actions, and emotions to achieve our goals. Let’s dive into what executive functioning is and why it’s crucial for our daily lives.

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This blog is for educational purposes only. This information is best case scenario, at least within the scope of my knowledge and experience at the time I write the post. Not only does everyone have different approaches to parenting and life- and my way may not be your cup of tea, but also- I am not perfect, nor do I want anyone to imagine that I am. Despite being a therapist and having a whole host of really cool techniques for all the mental health related things, I am constantly learning and trying to do better.

I’m hoping that this blog can help you. When we share what works for us, we can help others develop their own toolkit for improving their mental health.

The Basics of Executive Functioning

Executive functioning is a term psychologists use to describe the various processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. These skills are controlled by the brain’s frontal lobe and are vital for learning, working, and managing daily life. Can you guess what part of the brain ADHD impacts?

Executive functioning skills include:

  • Planning and organization: The ability to plan and organize tasks, foresee potential challenges, and devise a strategy to overcome them.
  • Working memory: Holding information in your mind while performing complex tasks, like reasoning or problem-solving.
  • Inhibitory control: The capacity to control impulses and delay gratification, allowing us to think before acting.
  • Emotional regulation: Managing emotions to achieve goals, complete tasks, or control and direct behavior.
  • Flexible thinking: Adapting to new information, adjusting to unforeseen obstacles, and switching focus between tasks as needed.

In the video below, I outline the list of executive functioning skills that I use. If you search the internet, there’s some varying ways different people split up these skills so you may get mixed information about how many skills there are.

Why Is Executive Functioning Important?

Imagine trying to complete a complex project without the ability to plan ahead, organize your thoughts, control your impulses, or adapt to new information. It would be nearly impossible, right? That’s where executive functioning comes into play. These skills are fundamental for:

  • Learning: From following directions in school to absorbing new information, executive functions are at the core of learning.
  • Social interactions: Navigating social nuances requires quick thinking and emotional regulation, skills rooted in executive functioning.
  • Productivity: Whether it’s at work, school, or home, executive functions help us prioritize tasks, meet deadlines, and switch between tasks efficiently.
  • Overall well-being: Good executive functioning is linked to positive health behaviors, reducing stress, and better life satisfaction.

Executive Functioning and Development

Contrary to what some might believe, we aren’t just born with executive functioning skills. And they don’t just magically develop. Like other child development skills, we learn different executive functioning skills at different ages. We develop and grow the skills. We practice the skills. Adults model and teach children these skills.

You might think all babies learn to walk around 1 years old, correct? But some kids may have delays for neurological or physical reasons. Some might be advanced. Most just hit the averages. But if I took a baby and never gave him opportunities to build the muscles in his legs, he’d be delayed when walking- it wouldn’t matter if he’s a normal kiddo with no issues. What matters is that he HASN’T had the opportunity to crawl, stand, and bounce around in order to build the muscles, balance, and coordination needed for walking. So at 1 years old, he wouldn’t walk.

Even a normal child with normal development who begins to walk at 1 is going to fall a lot. They get better as they practice. They learn to walk with different shoes and on different surfaces. There’s progressive advancement. We don’t magically turn 1 and everything is easy.

Things to Understand about Executive Functioning Skills and Development

  • A 5 year old isn’t going to have good executive functioning skills.
  • We don’t all learn the skills in the same exact order and with the same exact timing.
  • People with ADHD are 1-3 years behind peers on learning these skills. It doesn’t mean we don’t have the skills at all.
  • Some of these skills don’t fully develop until we are in our late 20s… for ADHD folks, this could be as late as 28 years old.
  • You can have poor executive functioning skills without ADHD.
  • You can have pretty decent looking executive functioning skills AND have ADHD.
  • You can LEARN EF skills even if you’re ADHD. In fact, you should. We need to teach the skills a bit more carefully.

Challenges and Support

While we all occasionally struggle with these skills, some people can find aspects of executive functioning particularly challenging. Conditions such as ADHD, autism, depression, and brain injuries can affect one’s executive functions. However, the good news is that these skills can be strengthened over time with practice and support.

Strategies might include:

  • Break tasks into smaller steps: This can help with planning and organization.
  • Use tools and technology: Calendars, planners, and reminder apps are great for keeping track of tasks and deadlines.
  • Practice mindfulness: Techniques like meditation can enhance focus and emotional regulation.
  • Seek professional guidance: Therapists and educational specialists can offer strategies tailored to individual needs.

Gender Differences in Executive Functioning Skills

I don’t have any research on this, but based on what I’ve seen, there are some substantial gender differences in executive functioning skills between men and women in the United States, specifically those who come from intact families with male/female parents with a more ‘traditional’ household. AKA Mom stays home, Dad goes to his desk job, they have the dog, the picket fence, etc.

Think: The smiling family on the cover of the older version of the board game LIFE where mom and daughter are happily doing the dishes while dad and son play the board game.

I made this video on executive function skills in women vs. men after a conversation with a neighbor.

What I’ve noticed is that my female ADHD counterparts are better prepared for life than many male ADHD’ers (and men without ADHD). I anticipate that this is because we’re often expected to have those skills and there are social repercussions to not having them. As a result, we find coping mechanisms, even if it is hard for us.

For example, I’m a mom and I’m expected to micromanage all of my littles. If I don’t sign up for the PTA or volunteer to help at school, or keep my house clean and organized then I may be chastised by both men and women. I’m expected to juggle health and dental appointments for myself, my husband, and children. I am expected to care for elderly parents while juggling children and a job. I saw a man recently chastise a woman on a social media network for wanting to leave her mother, who she cares for 24/7, to go see her grandson for a couple of weeks. How often are wives expected to figure out gifts and cards for their in-laws upon marriage?

Let’s compare this to the expectations placed on men.

First of all, how many men are automatically assumed to be the one responsible for caring for elderly parents? How many times will providers ask to talk to mom or send a message to mom to pay a bill for an activity when Dad is RIGHT THERE? Who does the school call first when there are two opposite sex parents? How many boys are expected to stop playing and help at family events?

When a child’s Dad is given those tasks to manage and messes up, people will nearly ALWAYS say, “Oh that’s Dads for you!” “Oh that silly little man, not able to do the thing.”

When someone walks into my house and it’s a mess, want to know how many people ask my husband why he hasn’t cleaned up better? None. Zero.

I also think women are more likely to participate in communities where we’re taught some of these skills- we may even be forced to participate when we aren’t keen on it. I anticipate that this is why women with Autism can often mask their symptoms so effectively. I have learned a LOT of skills from watching what works for other moms in moms groups, by networking with other parents (particularly ADHD ones), and from routine tasks that women participate in.

For example, have you ever noticed that at a family event, all of the older girls and women will work to cook, clean, and setup for an event? Perhaps they stay late to help clean up.

They see the mom next door just had a baby and is super overwhelmed and tired. They go to do laundry for her and bring her a meal. We see others do this and go “Oh yeah that’s a nice thing to do! I’ll do that too!”

At an event, I’ll chat with the other women while we break down tables and chair. Women often turn work into social events and I think in the process of doing tasks together, we learn so much.

In the overall scheme of things, I think men need more of this in their lives. Those skills are important to develop and allow us to thrive as managers, CEOs, and in caring for ourselves and others. It opens doors. It’s like getting a college degree or trade certificate- is it 100% necessary? No. But it opens a lot more doors. It also makes us a lot more likeable to others around us. It makes them better partners, friends, and parents. Kids can know that if mom’s busy, they can ask dad to sign the permission slip and feel confident that dad won’t drop the ball.

I really admire the men who have a good grasp on these executive functioning skills and use them effectively, and I hope I’m raising my young boys to be equally skilled.

I anticipate that men used to have better executive functioning skills pre-industrial times, simply because your whole family would starve if you didn’t plan out your hunting or farming adequately. If Papa Ingalls hadn’t known to smoke and cure meat for the winter, there would have been no Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Executive Functioning and Education

I believe that education and the school system needs to focus more on teaching and nourishing these executive functioning skills in our youth. All children need help developing these skills. Children with deficits in these skills need to be given additional assistance, and taught hacks to work with their personal strengths and limitations.

We start out really well in kindergarten with classroom responsibilities like wiping down the board and line leader, but it seems to devolve in later grades. We have less movement, less autonomy to make decisions and plan our days, and we are constantly directing- and often overplanning- the lives of our children.

We can be too quick to try to catch children when they’re going to fall- and we need to focus more on buffering the fall, not removing the possibility of injury altogether.

As they learn to climb a rock wall or the playground treehouse, adults may be behind kids making sure that they can catch them if they fall backwards… after all, hospital trips are expensive and we don’t want our kids to get hurt.

I WOULD NOT place my children anywhere they couldn’t climb themselves. I don’t want them to feel TOO secure because I won’t always be there- even when they’re young, we can blink and they can get into dangerous situations.

The process of climbing the rock wall or ladder made them aware of the risks without me needing to worry over them or verbally educate them. So when my toddlers were yelling because they wanted to go to the top of the playground, I was like “great, climb it.” And I’d support and help them figure it out. If they couldn’t find the place to put their hands or feet on the rock wall, I might come behind them to steady them while they look around for options- but I would generally not boost them up.

This is how we learn and grow.

Like teaching kids to climb safely, we can teach our kids gradually to take on more and more responsibility that builds these executive functioning skills.

What could that look like at school? Those kindergarten classroom tasks should continue as the kids age, and they should become more detailed. There should be more expectations. Teachers should feel like the students take a weight off and are responsible for themselves. And more often than not, kids enjoy the extra movement of these tasks and are happy to take them on, as long as grownups aren’t yelling at them about it or expecting perfection. Using positive reinforcement when they help out is HUGE.

At home, we can support children when they take on new responsibilities… and make them EARN new responsibilities. I have to work on a post about my process for allowing one of my children to acquire a pet. There’s a LONG detailed process that’s very important to me. I’m always checking behind the kids to ensure the safety and well being of the animals, and I’m always teaching EF skills as we are managing the animal’s care.

I have a little bit of a not-so-secret project that I’m working on… my 5 year plan is to open a private school for kids that focuses on executive functioning skills, increases movement time and responsibility during the school day, and incorporates planning and autonomy. I’m sure I’ll share more about it soon, but I’m at those beginning stuck stages of trying to figure out funding, non profit vs. not, etc. I’m hoping to put together some homeschool programs and summer camps prior to going full-time.


Executive functioning is a vital part of our success as humans. It allows us to thrive and grow, it opens doors to opportunities that we never knew were there. It allows us to reach dreams that others think are unachievable.

By understanding and nurturing these skills, we can improve our productivity, enhance our learning, and lead more organized, fulfilling lives. Whether you’re looking to boost your own executive functions or support someone else in developing theirs, remember that progress is possible, and with the right strategies, anyone can enhance their brain’s CEO capabilities.

Photo: Cogs in the shape of a question mark with the text over it: What is executive functioning? And are we failing our children? 

A discussion and therapist's thoughts on executive functioning skills, discrepancies between men and women, and the development of those skills.