What is Executive Functioning?

by | May 20, 2020 | 0 comments

What does ‘executive functioning’ mean? 

You may have heard the term ‘executive functioning’ mentioned by professionals such as Occupational Therapists (OT’s) or teachers, but it is not always clear what they mean by this. The words executive and functioning sound more like terms you would hear in relation to computers or in management of a company – and that’s not so far from the truth. Instead of being about computer management or being a CEO, executive functioning is about brain management. That is, the way in which our brain processes and manages information relating to planning, problem solving, organisation, self-regulation, and attention – just to name a few. It’s essentially about being the CEO of our own brains and bodies.

Why is executive functioning important? 

Without executive functioning, we wouldn’t be able to plan or organise anything, from our body movements to our routines, or meeting others’ expectations of us. Executive functioning provides us with the skills to make and achieve goals and to meet our needs each day. When children have poor executive functioning skills, this affects all aspects of life from self-care to learning. Just some of the things for which we rely on our executive functioning skills include: 

  • Planning and coordinating fine and gross motor movements. 
  • Remembering to complete self-care tasks like tooth brushing and taking medication. 
  • Paying attention during conversations or while completing work. 
  • Initiating and sequencing tasks. 
  • Processing and retaining information. 
  • Solving problems and adapting to changes. 
  • Regulating our emotions and behaviour. 
  • Understanding other people’s perspectives. 

How is executive functioning developed? 

Children are not born with executive functioning skills – they must be developed over time. While these may develop with ease for some, others may need some additional support. We know that the human brain is not fully developed until early adulthood, and therefore executive functioning may still be developing until this time. The following skills and activities help children and young people to develop their executive functioning skills throughout their development: 

  • Developing positive relationships with family and peers.
  • Taking on responsibilities such as household chores.
  • Engaging in imaginary play and storytelling.
  • Learning from mistakes.
  • Negotiating physical, social, or emotional obstacles.
  • Playing strategy games (that includes computer games!).
  • Developing play skills.
  • Participating in sports.
  • Learning to play an instrument.
  • Planning activities.

Signs of poor executive functioning

It is not always easy to spot executive functioning skills; children with difficulties in this area may be labelled as ‘clumsy’, ‘forgetful’, ‘disorganised’, or even sometimes as ‘lazy’. Difficulties with executive functioning most certainly are not a sign of laziness but are instead an issue which needs additional support and guidance. Signs that your child may be experiencing difficulties with their executive functioning skills include: 

  • Difficulty starting or completing tasks. 
  • Difficulty prioritising tasks in order of importance. 
  • Doing things in a harder way than is necessary. 
  • Being forgetful/ losing items frequently. 
  • Difficulty coping with and responding to unexpected problems or changes. 
  • Difficulty organising self and managing time – may hand in assignments late. 
  • Difficulty planning written work or getting thoughts down on paper. 

Strategies for managing executive functioning difficulties

Unfortunately, there is no ‘quick fix’ for executive functioning difficulties; these are skills which we develop over time and which require practice before they can become well developed. There are, however, plenty of things you can do to make life a little easier for those with executive functioning difficulties. 

  • Give information and instructions in small chunks for easier processing. 
  • Avoid giving verbal to do lists- write things down to help with remembering. 
  • Use visual checklists for getting ready in the morning. 
  • Take frequent brain breaks between tasks requiring focus. 
  • Use a visual organiser or timetable to help keep track of activities. 
  • Minimise visual or auditory distractions while working. 

We hope this blog has helped you to understand a little more about what executive functioning is, why it’s important, and how you can help a child with executive functioning difficulties. If you have any questions about this topic or would like additional support for executive functioning difficulties, contact us at info@seirrah.co.uk or join our Facebook support group by searching ‘therapies support group’. 


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About the Author



Paediatric Occupational Therapist

Lilly is an enthusiastic and approachable individual with a passion for supporting children, teenagers and young adults in finding meaning and independence in their lives. Lilly specialises in the area of assessment and intervention for individuals with a range of challenges and diagnoses, including autism, dyspraxia, anxiety and mental health.

In 2019, Lilly completed a Master’s Degree in Language and Communication, in which she researched and advocated for communication rights and the importance of person-centred care. Lilly has a particular interest in supporting children and young people living with mental health difficulties and learning disabilities, often taking creative approaches in this. Lilly is a strong believer that everyone has a right to independence and thrives to support her clients in achieving this.

Lilly currently provides a range of assessments, consultation and therapeutic interventions for children, adolescents and young adults in the Seirrah Therapies clinic, in schools and in homes across the UK. Lilly has experience of conducting assessments and writing reports as part of the Special Educational Needs (SEN) Tribunal process in collaboration with our Highly Specialist Paediatric Occupational Therapist. 

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