What is Executive Function?

Taking a look at three areas of executive function.

5/8/20211 min read

Executive Function refers to a set of cognitive skills which enable us to act in an organized way to achieve our objectives. These skills form the capacity to plan ahead and meet goals, display self-control, follow multiple-step directions even when interrupted, and stay focused despite distractions, among others. Executive functions play an essential role: Experts identify three main types: working memory, inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility.Working memory is a cognitive system with a limited capacity that can hold information temporarily.

Working memory is an active process. A mental scratchpad where we hold and process all the information we need to access at any given time. Working memory holds a small amount of information. This can be abstract, such as ideas that can be contemplated, or something as concrete as objects that can be counted. This information is a choice of some things out of a greater set of possible things. Researchers believe working memory is central to the functioning of the mind. It correlates with many more general abilities and outcome. It is linked with intelligence, scholastic attainment, and basic sensory processes. Psychologists and neuroscientists focus on different aspects as they investigate working memory. Psychologists try to map out the functions of the system, while neuroscientists focus more on its neural underpinnings. Inhibitory control involves controlling our automatic urges, attention, behavior, thoughts, and emotions.

Inhibitory control involves our ability to think before we react. By pausing then using attention and reasoning to respond appropriately It allows us to think about past experiences and then consider what the future consequences might be in a particular situation. Inhibition is one of the prefrontal cortex functions in the brain. Inhibitory control begins to develop at the end of the first year of life. It continues to develop quickly until the age of 6 years. Over the next 20-30 years, inhibitory control will continue to develop.

Cognitive flexibility refers to our ability to adapt flexibly to our constantly changing environment. Looking at a problem from multiple perspectives and adapt to new situations. When children are asked to think about multiple concepts simultaneously or change their approach to solving a problem, they need to demonstrate flexible thinking. The ability to easily shift perspective and recognize when the situations changes allows a child to think in new ways, act creatively and solve problems.