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What is Executive Function?

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By Susan Darby
on 10 May, 2017

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The Boss of the Brain – Executive Function

Executive Function in Daily Life

We use our Executive Function most of the time, but we probably only notice it when it lets us down:

  • We blurt out a comment that was meant to stay in our head
  • We eat that extra piece of chocolate cake and then feel sick!
  • We get to our bedroom and realise we have forgotten what we went there to fetch
  • We know there is another way to tackle this maths problem, but can’t get column addition out of our head.

So what is Executive Function?

Prefrontal CortexIt really is the Boss of the Brain – the Control Centre. It is in the front of your brain, just behind your forehead, in a place called the prefrontal cortex.

Executive Function allows us to:

  • Have self-control
  • Take a step back and think about what we are thinking and doing
  • Plan what we want or need to do. It then checks that things are working out and allows us to modify our plans if necessary.

So it is not surprising that experts now think that Executive Function plays a big part in exam performance.

Are we born with Executive Function?

Executive Function is in a part of the brain that changes a lot after we are born. You can usually see self-control starting to develop in children about two to three years old. Look at this YouTube video to get an idea.

This part of the brain (prefrontal cortex) also changes a lot when we are between about ten and twenty five years old. The changes go alongside the obvious body changes of puberty – we just can’t see them and they go on for longer.

So can we make our Executive Function better?

Just like we can help our body by exercising and eating a varied diet, and build our body by going to the gym, so we can help build our Executive Function.

To help us best use our Executive Function, we should:

  • Give ourselves time to do things that make us feel calm and happy. If we are too anxious or over-excited we downgrade our Executive Function skills
  • Take regular exercise
  • Make time to see friends and family, so that we feel supported
  • Make time to do the things that we feel we can do well. This might not be school/college work – it could be singing or baking.

If we want to build our Executive Function, we could:

  • Take up a Martial Art or Yoga. As well as being good for fitness, these build self-control
  • Listen carefully to what teachers and tutors have to say about study skills. Study skills are about planning and monitoring what we do. In learning study skills we also pick up strategies we can use anywhere such as lists, mind-maps and task planners
  • Take up Mindfulness. This is good for helping us to ‘ground’ ourselves and to focus in the moment rather than being distracted.

Where can I find out more?

  • Here's a short YouTube video that briefly explains the Executive Function skills we develop more in adolescence (metacognition)
  • This is another short video that looks mainly at basic Executive Function skills (inhibitory control, working memory and mental flexibility) as they are developing in younger children       
  • Adele Diamond is a world expert on Executive Function. She often explains things in a way that we can all understand. 

Comment (1)

  • Leah Burman avatar

    Leah Burman

    Thank you for this. Executive function is so important for learning. Good to see educational psychology applied and promoted.

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