This post may have the feel of a mini research paper. My apologies if that is not appealing! Understanding the concept of Executive Function (EF) is important for ADHDers and those who care about them. I find myself frequently confused about the subject, and writing this brief post is another attempt to come to a clearer understanding.
So much research is being done about the brain that the general understanding of EF is constantly growing and changing. That makes it difficult to settle on one working definition. It seems to me that the more you look for explanations of EF, the more explanations you are likely to find. In this post you’ll find short descriptions of three ways it has been explained, with links to the sources in case you want to read further.
Dr. Thomas Brown’s Concept of the Conductor:
For some time I’ve been drawn to Dr. Thomas Brown’s simple analogy of EF to an orchestra conductor. Dr. Brown says an orchestra conductor’s job is “to select what piece is to be played, to start [the musicians] playing together, to keep them on time, to modulate the pace and volume of each section, and to introduce or fade out various instruments at appropriate times.” Without a conductor to direct and hold it all together, there could be a cacophony of sound rather than a beautiful symphony. ADHDers have an imperfect and at times a missing conductor (EF) to direct the activities of part of the brain.
Dr. Russell Barkley’s Seven Skills:
In ADDitude magazine, Dr. Russell Barkley describes seven areas of EF that are usually challenging for ADHDers. These are areas in which the “conductor” (EF) is not available or not up to the task. He writes:
“Executive function is judged by the strength of these seven skills:
- Self-awareness: Simply put, this is self-directed attention.
- Inhibition: Also known as self-restraint.
- Non-Verbal Working Memory: The ability to hold things in your mind. Essentially, visual imagery — how well you can picture things mentally.
- Verbal Working Memory: Self-speech, or internal speech. Most people think of this as their “inner monologue.”
- Emotional Self-Regulation: The ability to take the previous four executive functions and use them to manipulate your own emotional state. This means learning to use words, images, and your own self-awareness to process and alter how we feel about things.
- Self-motivation: How well you can motivate yourself to complete a task when there is no immediate external consequence.
- Planning and Problem Solving: Experts sometimes like to think of this as “self-play” — how we play with information in our minds to come up with new ways of doing something. By taking things apart and recombining them in different ways, we’re planning solutions to our problems.”
For Dr. Barkley, EF is so central to ADHD that it could more appropriately be called Executive Function Deficit Disorder (EFDD).
The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard and the Three Primary Functions:
Other folks including some at Harvard describe EF in terms of three primary functions:
- Working memory – the capacity to hold and manipulate information in our heads over short periods of time
- Inhibitory control – mastering and filtering our thoughts and impulses to resist temptations and distractions; pausing and thinking before we act
- Cognitive or mental flexibility – being able to switch gears and adjust to changed demands or priorities or perspectives.
So, those are three of many ways of looking at EF. I still find the conductor analogy most helpful. The various lists of EF components, whether three or seven or even ten or eleven, are different ways of describing various tasks the conductor needs to direct.
EF is such an important part of self-management that it is even being taught on Sesame Street! This is a very good thing for preschoolers and their parents who can watch for how the executive functions are developing in their children–whether they are developing at what is considered a “normal” age for a neurotypical child. ADHDers’ executive functions develop at a rate that is 30-40 percent behind what is considered age appropriate, so ADHDers often behave as if they were much younger than their peers. Recognizing the delays can help parents and teachers set up accommodations.
Parents and teachers and partners and colleagues can also focus on the strengths of ADHDers and make sure there is a clear awareness of all the things that are being done well. EF delays are not a reflection of overall intelligence. In fact, many ADHDers are exceptionally intelligent and creative. They just don’t always feel that way, since most of the world around them relies on executive functions to keep moving forward and the ADHDers can feel left behind.