Executive Function: What to Know

September 1, 2016

What is Executive Function?

The idea that there is a system of functions within our brain that helps us coordinate our actions, direct our behavior, and manage our emotional response is a long-standing concept. The term “executive functions” was created by Karl Pribram in the 1970s through his research that attempted to understand the role of the prefrontal cortex (Barkley, 2012). The interest in how we use cognition to set and achieve goals is a widely explored topic with varying definitions and approaches. Although there are many definitions of executive function, the general consensus is that the executive functions work together, often as a series of clusters or areas, to coordinate our ability to set goals, manage our emotions, and work toward achieving that goal. Academic exploration of the nature of executive function has provided valuable insight and information on the importance of intact executive function skills for success in the classroom and in daily life.

Impact on Schooling

Landmark Outreach has publications that synthesize the research and outline how best support students’ executive function skills in the classroom. According to Patricia W. Newhall author of Language-Based Learning Series: Executive Function: Foundations for Learning and Teaching, “Executive Function is the brain’s ability to coordinate the cognitive and psychological processes needed to initiate, sustain, monitor and adapt the behaviors and attitudes required to achieve a goal” (2012, p.2).

She also writes that in thinking about the impairment of executive function skills, there are generally two models: bottom-up and top-down difficulties.

  • Bottom-up difficulties are more often seen with students who have language processing issues. In this model, their individual skill sets are so impaired that they often become unable to reach the actual goal. For instance, if a student is given the goal of writing a paragraph, their executive function skills do not matter if their language skills impede their ability to produce a written paragraph.
  • On the other hand, top-down difficulties reflect a student’s difficulty with specific executive function skills rather than language-based skills that hinder reaching the goal.

Building executive function skills into the classroom lends itself well to the sixth Landmark Teaching Principle™: Include the Student in the Learning Process. Recognition and awareness of strengths and weaknesses within the executive functions involves the student’s ability to reflect and be metacognitive about his/her abilities. 

Well-Known Executive Function Theorists

Dr. Thomas E. Brown explains executive function in the terms of a music conductor: “regardless of their expertise, the musicians need a competent conductor who will select the piece to play, make sure they start playing at the same time and stay on tempo, fade in the strings and then bring in the brass, and manage them as they interpret the music. Without an effective conductor, the symphony will not produce good music” (Brown, 2007, p.23). In other words, Dr. Brown believes that we need to coordinate what he believes are the six clusters of executive function, activation, focus, effort, emotion, memory, and action to achieve goals. Brown’s widely circulated article, Executive Functions: Describing Six Aspects of a Complex System, explains these clusters and their impact on an individual in more detail.

Dr. Russell A. Barkley’s theories focus on 7 core skills. He believes that individuals with intact executive function skills exhibit the following when working towards a goal: Self-awareness, Inhibition, Non-Verbal Working Memory, Verbal Working Memory, Emotional Self-Regulation, Self-Motivation, and Planning and Problem Solving. Watch this his video below learn more about how these areas work to support the executive functions:

Drs. Peg Dawson and Richard Guare state in their book Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents: A Practical Guide to Assessment and Intervention (2018) that “Executive skills allow us to organize our behavior over time and override immediate demons in favor of longer term goals. Through the use of these skills we can plan and organize activities, sustain our attention and persist to complete a task. Executive skills enable us to manage our emotions and monitor our thoughts in order to work more efficiently and effectively. Simply stated, these skills help us to regulate our behavior” (Dawson and Guare, 2018, p. 1). They believe the following five skills are necessary to set and achieve goals and solve problems: planning, organization, time management, working memory, metacognition, and that the following skills to help us see the task to the end: response inhibition, emotional control, sustained attention, task initiation, flexibility, and goal directed persistence. To understand more about how these areas work together to help coordinate the executive functions, read this article.


Barkley, R.A. (2012). Executive functions: what they are, how they work, and why they evolved. Guilford Press. 

Brown, T.E. (2007). A new approach to attention deficit disorder. Educational Leadership. 64, 22-27. 

Dawson, P.,& Guare, R. (2018). Executive skills in children and adolescents: a practical guide to assessment and intervention. Guilford Press. 

Newhall, P.W. (2014). Executive function: foundations for teaching and learning. Landmark School Outreach Program. 

Publications and Resources by Brown

Website: Brown ADHD Clinic

Publication: A New Understanding of ADHD in Children and Adults (2013)

Publications and Resources by Dawson and Guare

Publication: Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents: A Practical Guide to Assessment and Intervention  (2018)

Publication: Smart But Scattered (2009)

Website: Smart But Scattered Kids

Strategies to Download

Explore a study strategy that helps students maintain focus and self-monitor while reading.


Strategies to Download

Understand interferences with Executive Function


Strategies to Download

Explore the use of student questionnaires and classroom strategies.


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