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What are executive functions?

What are executive functions?

Executive functions are a set of skills that allow us to live independently and do our daily activities. They can be thought of as a co-ordinator, whose job is to manage of all other cognitive functions (such as language, memory, attention) so that you can complete tasks properly. Executive function skills help you to:

  • plan
  • multitask
  • prioritise
  • control impulses
  • filter out distractions
  • and other things

Executive functions take a long time to develop. They do not develop fully until people are in their early 20s.

It is often in secondary school that people experience the biggest demands on their executive skills. Young people have to start navigating around bigger schools, getting to lessons in different classrooms, managing multiple assignments, remembering homework and P.E. kits, and so on.

Types of executive function


Planning is the ability to:

  • identify the steps needed to reach a goal and complete a task
  • work out what is important to focus on and what can be ignored.


Organisation is the ability to:

  • find ways to keep track of information and tasks (such as lists)
  • sort information (such as grouping things together, and categorising them)

Time management

Time management is underpinned by an understanding that time is important. It is the ability to:

  • work out how much time is available
  • estimate how long a task will take to complete
  • stay within this time allocation when completing the task

Working memory

Working memory is the ability to:

  • hold multiple pieces of information in mind while completing tasks. This may include recalling past learning experiences and applying these to the current situation.


Metacognition is a bit like observing yourself complete tasks and giving an evaluation or commentary. It is the ability to:

  • think about your problem solving
  • monitor your performance
  • evaluate your work


Inhibition is the ability to:

  • think before you act so you can fully understand and evaluate the situation. This helps you to think about how to respond in an appropriate way.

Emotional control

Emotional control is the ability to:

  • keep your emotions in check to be able to achieve goals or complete a task.

Attention and persistence

Attention and persistence is the ability to:

  • stay focused in the face of distractions, tiredness, or disinterest.
  • keep working towards an end goal, even when there are other demands.

Task initiation

Task initiation is the ability to:

  • start a task in a timely manner, for example not ‘putting something off’.


Flexibility is the ability to:

  • change and revise plans.
  • think differently about something and not get stuck in a particular way of doing it.
  • use feedback or new information to make a revised plan.

When do we use them?

People use executive functions to help them plan out their time, complete work, and to successfully carry out tasks. These are some examples of when a child uses executive function skills:

  • Planning out the day so that they leave enough time for tasks they need to do, such as tidying, doing homework, with enough time for some playing.
  • They have completed their homework, and then review it to check that they have answered the question and done what they were supposed to do.
  • When they receive feedback on homework, they are able to reflect on their work and understand where they went wrong, and how to improve on this.
  • When they are distracted by their thoughts, they are able to recognise it, stop themselves and return to task.

Do executive functions vary between people?

Yes. All cognitive skills naturally vary between children, and it is the same with executive functioning.

You might find your child is better at some executive skills, but worse at others compared to other children of their age. Children and young people experiencing more global cognitive difficulties (for example an intellectual or learning disability) will have corresponding problems with their executive functioning as a consequence of their lower general ability level.

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Please note: this is a generic information sheet relating to care at Sheffield Children’s NHS FT. These details may not reflect treatment at other hospitals. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professionals’ instructions. If this resource relates to medicines, please read it alongside the medicine manufacturer’s patient information leaflet. If this information has been translated into another language from English, efforts have been made to maintain accuracy, but there may still be some translation errors. If you are unsure about any of the guidance in this resource or have specific questions about how it relates to your child, always ask your healthcare professional for further advice.

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