Executive Functions


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An executive in a company or organisation has various supervisory roles, to establish priorities and especially, to ensure that those in the organisational team are working together to accomplish a specific outcome.  There are some similarities between an executive and the Executive Functions in the brain.  Executive Functions are commonly referred to as the 'air traffic control centre' of cognitive processes.  In essence, the Executive Functions – like the air traffic control centre located at a busy airport – manage the flow of activity, directing neural activity and trying to ensure there is an orderly progression of incomings and outgoings, without difficulties. 

Just as air-traffic controllers need to learn how to manage the safe, smooth movement of aircraft around an airport, so it is necessary for various Executive Functions – located in prefrontal cortex area of the brain, to develop the capacity to link together key cognitive functions for various tasks to be undertaken without difficulties. 

Executive Functions that are involved in managing emotions are: emotional control, metacognition, flexibility and response inhibition.  These Executive Functions act together to allow an individual to develop self-awareness, to think about their thinking, to change direction when this is warranted and to stop and think before acting.  These cognitive capabilities, act together to manage emotions, to self-regulate and take considered (rather than impulsive) actions.  These Executive Functions may not be fully developed in all brains and may remain a 'work in progress' – cognitive functions that have not yet fully developed, obvious in students who are perceived as reactive, without the capacity to self-regulate emotions. brain-5591471_1920.jpg

To achieve academically, Executive Functions related to organisation are critical.  These involve the activation of working memory, organisation, planning and prioritisation as well as task initiation – a powerful combination of Executive Functions that enable students to plan what they need to do, manage their academic workload, hold key information in their memory while carrying out a task and to get started on the academic tasks that have been assigned. The activation and interaction of these cognitive skills develop strength the more they are used, eventually becoming automatic; however, if these skills have not yet developed, they are not able to be used to assist a student become better organised.

Executive Functions, such as sustained attention, goal-directed persistence and time-management coordinate to enable students to persist and finish a specific task.  Like a heat-seeking missile, students can identify their goal, 'lock' onto it and maintain focus until the task is completed.

Harvard Professor of Paediatrics and Director of Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child, Dr. Jack Shonkoff, refers to the successful orchestration of Executive Functions such as working memory, inhibitory control, cognitive or mental flexibility that are required when completing most tasks.  When the various stages (e.g., prewriting, drafting, revising, editing and presenting) of academic assignments are considered, the orchestrated use of Executive Functions is vital.

© Michele Juratowitch

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Last reviewed 18 June 2021
Last updated 18 June 2021