Educational advocacy, learning disabilities advocacy     Internet Special Education Resources
Special Education & Learning Disabilities Resources: A Nationwide Directory

What is Executive Functioning?

by Scott Crouse, Certified School Psychologist, of
Executive Functioning is a relatively new and somewhat controversial term being used within the educational and mental health communities. Executive Functioning refers to a person's ability to manage or regulate a collection of basic cognitive and emotional processes. This includes planning, initiation, organization, and execution of tasks as well as the ability to cope with transitions or regulate emotional responses. It is basically like an executive who oversees and manages several different departments within a company or corporation. Without an effective executive coordinating all of the various activities, the overall company is less efficient and therefore less productive. Likewise, a person lacking effective executive functioning skills tends to be less productive or successful in school or in life.

Executive Functioning skills involve:

  • ability to stay focused on tasks
  • ability to plan and anticipate
  • organization of thoughts and materials
  • ability to follow-through and complete tasks
  • ability to cope with unstructured situations
  • ability to cope with changes in routine
  • ability to regulate emotions
Students experiencing general Executive Functioning difficulties often struggle academically with work-completion, organization, and motivation for any task which is perceived as difficult, frustrating, or simply unappealing.

While the concept of executive functioning certainly makes sense, it is strictly theoretical and there is considerable uncertainty and disagreement regarding whether it is actually an aspect of cognitive processing (i.e. a brain-based processing skill), or more of a personality trait (possibly related to factors of behavior and/or motivation).

As it relates to a learning disability, executive functioning is a bit of a chicken vs egg situation. While students with specific areas of information processing difficulty often also display broader executive functioning problems, this may simply reflect a breakdown in the overall 'organization' caused by a single ineffective 'department'. It can also relate to broad motivational issues brought about by years of failure and frustration.

Weakness in the executive functioning area is also often associated with an attention deficit disorder (ADHD with or without hyperactivity). In fact, evaluation of executive functioning skills is becoming a fairly standard aspect of ADHD diagnosis. Unfortunately, as with a learning disability, it is generally unclear if the apparent breakdown of executive functioning is actually the cause or the effect of the attentional difficulties.

Intervention for executive dysfunction:

Students with executive functioning issues tend to respond well to increased structure, routine, and predictability in their lives. The use of lists and schedules can help a great deal. The important thing to remember is that you are trying to help the student develop better executive functioning skills. A common pitfall occurs when parents or teachers simply perform the executive functioning tasks for the student rather than helping him learn to perform the tasks for himself. While it may be necessary and appropriate to initially help to develop lists, schedules, routines, and other structures to 'get the job done', when parents or teachers do too much for too long, the student's dysfunction actually becomes more significant and unmanageable.

Scott Crouse is a Certified School Psychologist. His site,, provides practical information about all types of learning disabilities, learning styles, and learning disorders plus new sections related to emotional and behavioral concerns! Try the free online learning disability and emotional/behavioral rating scales.
You can reach him at:

Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.


Educational advocacy, learning disabilities advocacy     Return to ISER Home