Image of Brain with Multiple Functions Present

Understanding Executive Functioning Skills

February 11, 2020

By: Allie Szczecinski, Educational Consultant

In the world of education, we often talk about “executive functioning skills” but they often seem abstract, and like a catchall term. So, what ARE they and how do we target them if they are areas of need for students?

Executive functioning (EF) skills are MENTAL skills. No matter where an individual falls in their EF skill level, these skills can be taught and strengthened! The thing about EF skills are that they are essential. It is hard to function throughout the day when one area of executive functioning is lacking. The truth is, we ALL struggle in these areas  Many of us have independently found or created coping skills to compensate for our deficit areas. It is important to acknowledge that these areas can be tricky for everyone.

While there are many component executive functioning skills, experts tell us that the skills fall into three broad areas.

  1. Inhibition
    Can a child ignore distractions around them? Can they absorb impulses to do things like blurt out answers or walk away from a potential aggressive fight?
    A child who struggles with inhibition may need repeated and explicit instruction surrounding emotional regulation, hand raising, and/or using their social filter in conversation.
  2. Flexible thinking
    Can the child conceptualize there is more than one way of doing an activity? Does the child understand and tolerate that someone may have a different opinion?
    A child who struggles with flexible thinking may argue over how to complete a math problem if there is more than one way to answer it, and/or struggle to accept a change in the daily schedule.
  3. Memory
    Can the child hold on to information that was taught or told to them, and apply it? Can they follow simple through complex directions?
    A child who struggles with memory/working memory may appear to have attention challenges, present with organization difficulties, and/or struggle to apply information that was told to or taught to them.

I am sure you are noticing how many skills would fall into each overarching area that can deeply affect the way an individual functions throughout the day. It’s hard to wait for the bus that’s running late when you struggle with inhibition, it would be a challenge to express empathy when a situation doesn’t go your way when flexible thinking is a struggle, and difficult to help set up the classroom for the science experiment when your working memory skills are lagging. Many of these deficits can be seen as laziness, defiance, or the blanket statement of “attention challenges.” Those might be true, but if the underlying cause are EF deficits, THAT is where we need to start our interventions!


Allie is an educational consultant with the Elim Learning program. Elim Learning serves as an organizational and community catalyst for change. Our team of specialists supports the learning and development of Elim staff, area schools, and our ministry partners around the globe!

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