Prairie Lakes Area Education Agency

Executive Function

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Executive Functioning

Executive functioning skills are generally described as deficits that impact an individual’s ability to organize and act on information.  The eight common sets of skills are: impulse control, emotional control, flexibility, working memory, self-monitoring, planning and prioritizing, task initiation, and organization.  We often see these deficits in our students through their struggles with initiating tasks, using class time appropriately, difficulty making decisions, and task completion.


Formal Definition

“The executive functions are a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one's resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation.”

Primary Executive Functioning Skills


  • The ability to keep track of things physically or mentally.
  • Individuals who struggle with this aspect of executive functioning can often lose their train of thought, lose items, or lack the ability to impose order.

Impulse Control

  • The ability to think before acting.
  • People who have poor impulse control are often impulsive which may take the form of blurting out inappropriate things or at inappropriate times.  This may also take the shape of engaging in risky behavior (i.e. not considering consequences).

Emotional Control

  • This ability to regulate one’s emotions or keep them “in check”.
  • Individuals who struggle to control their emotions may overreact or have difficulties accepting criticism or disappointment.

Flexible Thinking

  • Being able to adjust to the unexpected.
  • People who struggle with flexible thinking are often rigid in their thought processes.  This can be seen through an individual’s struggle to “roll with the punches” or problem solve.

Working Memory

  • The capacity to retrieve needed information from one’s memory.
  • Working memory deficits can take the form of an individual’s difficulties with remembering directions or accessing information that has been taught previously.


  • The ability to evaluate oneself.
  • Individuals who have a hard time with self-monitoring may be surprised when given a grade or feedback because it might not match up to their perceived performance.

Planning and Prioritizing

  • The ability to decide on a goal and make a plan to meet that goal.
  • Students who struggle with planning and prioritizing often do not know where to start a project or how to choose which aspects may be the most important.

Task Initiation

  • The ability to begin a task or activity.
  • People who have weak task initiation skills often don’t know where to start on a task.  Once one step is done they may not recognize the need to move on to the next step or to follow plans through to completion.

These eight primary executive functioning skills help individuals lead productive lives and deficits in any of these areas may have an impact that varies from minimal to extreme.  Some individuals may struggle in only one skill area while others may have needs in many; however, it is important to note that executive functioning can be improved through the targeted instruction and practice of specific strategies



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