Understanding Executive Functioning – how it can inform our work with children

Understanding Executive Functioning –how it can inform our work with children at One-Eighty



What do we mean by executive functioning (EF)?                      

EF refers to a set of cognitive skills that allow us to concentrate, think and get things done. It relies on the following discrete areas of ability, which develop throughout childhood and into early adulthood:

  • working memory – being able to hold information in mind, and to process, and manipulate this.
  • mental flexibility – the capacity to adjust behaviour and responses to changing demands, priorities or perspectives; reasoning and problem solving skills.
  • self-control – the ability to master thoughts and impulses, in order to resist distraction, and be able to pause and think before acting; being able to apply persistence and sustain attention.
  • emotional regulation – managing frustration and moderating emotions.

At One-Eighty many of the young people with which we work have difficulty with these areas of functioning, often reflecting developmental issues, or disability, and frequently associated with a range of behavioural problems.

Why is EF so important?

It is recognized that these set of skills are necessary (at the appropriate developmental level) for school readiness and the strength of these will significantly affect a child’s achievement within education. Studies (for example, Clark et al, 2010) have found a relationship between ratings of EF and academic attainment. EF is also implicated in the development of positive relationships and social skills, as well as the ability of a child to develop independent living skills. Children who have poorly developed EF skills can become “stuck” in unhelpful ways of behaving and may struggle to conform to expected norms of behaviour. Hence, a child’s EF can be considered one of the vital building blocks for school and future life success, one of a number of gateway skills which contribute to successful learning (Stafford-Brizard, 2016).

Specifically, deficits in EF have been well documented in children with various types of developmental and acquired disabilities. Multiple studies link impaired EF with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) (for example, O’Hearn et al, 2008) and some theories of ASD have even suggested that deficits in EF may account for many of the behaviours seen.  Research has shown that poor EF is also a major issue in Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (for example, Semrud-Clikema et al, 2010).

How can we help develop EF?

A wide range of different kinds of interventions have been found to aid EF development (see the review of the literature undertaken by Diamond and Lee, 2011). These include:

·         specialized school curricula, for example developed to build children’s skills in self-control, recognizing and managing feelings, and problem-solving;

·         specific computerized training;

·         aerobic exercise;

·         martial arts, yoga and mindfulness activities.


All of these approaches have in common a willingness to commit time and effort to undertake a particular activity which draws on EF skills. Alongside this there also needs to be opportunities for repeated practice, and a progressive increase in the level of challenge involved. Other activities such as music, creative tasks, computer games and board games involving strategy, all provide practice in monitoring behaviour, building attention span, developing perseverance and problem-solving, However, research suggests that focusing solely on EF itself may not be as effective as also addressing emotional and social development, and enhancing experiences that give pleasure, a sense of achievement, and feelings of belonging (Diamond and Lee, 2011). Interestingly there is also growing evidence that addressing physical development and fitness alongside activities will also impact on EF development. Within One-Eighty we commonly address many of these aspects within the work that we do. Importantly, we also recognize how the quality of the relationship that we are able to build with a young person is a critical factor when supporting the development of EF skills. This is necessary to be able to provide positive encouragement, promote the skill practice, and facilitate the correct level of challenge (as opposed to frustration) to optimize learning.




Clark C. A. C., Pritchard V. E. & Woodward L. J. (2010). Preschool executive functioning abilities predict early mathematics achievement. Developmental Psychology, 46, 1176–1191.

Diamond A. and Lee K. (2011). Interventions shown to aid executive function development in children 4 to 12 years old. Science, 19 (6045), 959-964.

O’Hearn K., Asato M., Ordaz S. & Luna B. (2008). Neuro-development and executive function in autism. Development and Psychopathology, 20(4), 1103–1132.

Semrud-Clikeman M.,Walkowiak J.,Wilkinson A. & Butcher B. (2010). Executive functioning in

children with Asperger Syndrome, ADHD-Combined Type, ADHD-Predominantly Inattentive

Type, and controls. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 40, 1017–1027.

Stafford-Brizard K.B. (2016) Building Blocks for Learning: a framework for comprehensive student development. Turnabout for Children.  Available at:  http://turnaroundusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Turnaround-for-Children-Building-Blocks-for-Learningx-2.pdf

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