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Executive Functioning

Posted By Sarah Hickey and Sabrina Smart  

Executive functions are a set of three cognitive skills, namely:

  • Flexible attention / cognitive ability
  • Working memory
  • Inhibitory control

All three are interlinked and influence each other.


When complex things are happening around us, executive functioning skills help us stay on task such as make plans, set goals and carry them out successfully.


Cognitive ability or flexible attention allows us to shift our attention when necessary, directing it to the most important tasks and sustaining it while we are working on them. It allows us to shift focus quickly from one thing to another. It is the ability to adapt to new tasks quickly and to change our perspective. If we don’t, we cannot adapt and get stuck in old thoughts and patterns, and may come across as stubborn or uncooperative.


Working memory processes information and is the ability to remember and use important information. Working memory allows us to store important information, so we can access it when needed. It also helps us solve complex tasks.


Inhibitory control is the ability to pause and think before we act. It helps us resist impulses, it keeps us on task and helps us set goals and carry them out. It also describes our capability to concentrate, regulates our emotions and controls our behaviour during stressful situations. It is an essential skill if we want to change a childhood habit.


Executive functions help children learn and be successful in school, solving math problems, following directions, reading, playing sports and resolving conflicts.

These skills will last a lifetime and are used every day at school, at work and at home. These skills can be taught and practiced, and they form a foundation for self-regulation and help build social-emotional skills.


Executive function develops mainly during childhood: free play helps develop inhibitory control, games practice our working memory, movement and sports help build cognitive flexibility.


If a child has executive functioning difficulties they might:

  • Have difficulty with goal setting.
  • Show little awareness of the process involved of how things happen.
  • Have difficulty getting started on a task.
  • May not think about consequences or how their actions or behaviours may affect others.
  • Needs prompting to consider the feelings of others.
  • Use the same strategy to solve a repeated problem, even if proven ineffective.
  • Have difficulty adapting to change.
  • Have low self-esteem
  • Have difficulty overriding an emotion in order to behave appropriately.
  • Have a low tolerance for failure.
  • Have difficulty putting a sequence of steps in order.
  • Fail to see the ‘big picture’ of a task or situation.


If your child displays any of the above mentioned difficulties, please feel free to contact Kids First OT.

In our next blog, we will provide ideas on how to develop and practice executive functioning skills with your child.