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Executive Functioning : The What, Where, When and How

Executive functioning are cognitive skills that help us regulate thoughts and behaviors. It’s sort of like a traffic control system. Just as traffic control keeps vehicles moving smoothly on the road, executive functioning helps manage the flow of thoughts, actions, and decisions in your mind. 

Our everyday tasks are dependent on executive functions. It helps us stay focused, self-regulate, analyze information, make plans, manage time and work, stay organized and look at things from others’ perspectives and more. 


Types of Executive Functions

Attentional control involves a person's capacity to pay attention to and concentrate on a particular aspect of their environment.

Cognitive flexibility, also known as mental flexibility, describes the capacity to change focus or to think about multiple matters at once.

Cognitive inhibition is the capability of filtering out irrelevant information.

Inhibitory control is the capacity to regulate one's impulses or desires in favour of more appropriate or constructive behavior.

Working memory is a "temporary storage system" in the brain that keeps a number of details or thoughts in mind while completing a task or solving a problem.


What happens when executive function is impaired?

Impairment in executive functioning can result in an impairment in everyday activities. Here are a few ways an executive dysfunction affects us:

- Difficulty organizing, prioritizing and starting tasks. 

- Difficulty managing time and work.

- Forgetting important work and appointments.

- Being easily distracted and finding it difficult to focus.

- Being forgetful and losing or misplacing items, even important ones, like a document.

- Difficulty regulating emotions and managing stress and frustrations.

- Finding it difficult to follow instructions and sustaining effort and focus on one task for a long time, or finding it difficult to focus and complete a task due to boredom.

- Difficulty managing impulsivity.

- Issues with working memory, whereby people find it difficult to retrieve things from their memories, memorizing or recalling, and remembering what task to do next. 


Executive Functioning and ADHD

If you or someone you know has ADHD, you may have noticed that some of the aforementioned impaired executive functions are common difficulties for people with ADHD. 

Not everyone who has executive dysfunction also has ADHD, but there is an overlap between ADHD symptoms and executive dysfunction. Everyone may have a varying degree of impairment with executive functioning, but those with ADHD have a might higher, sometimes debilitating difficulty in their executive functioning. To understand it better, let’s look at the Brown Model of ADHD. 

Dr. Brown used clinical interview methods to study children, adolescents, and adults diagnosed with ADHD using DSM criteria. He compared their problem descriptions to those of matched normal controls. Comparisons of ADHD-diagnosed and non-clinical samples in each age group showed reports of impairments in the six clusters of his model of executive functions

This model views ADHD as a cognitive disorder, and therefore views it as something that impairs cognitive functions. Let’s understand the 6 clusters-


This involves problems with task and material organization, time estimation, task prioritization, and getting started on work or tasks. People with ADHD struggle with excessive procrastinating. It's as if they can't get started until they perceive the task as an urgent matter.


This involves paying, sustaining focus and shifting focus between tasks. Those with ADHD are not only distracted by their environments but also their own minds. Furthermore, many people find it difficult to concentrate on reading. Words are generally understood as they are read, but they must be read over and over in order for the meaning to be fully grasped and remembered.


This includes issues with regulating alertness, sustaining effort and processing speed. For those with ADHD sustaining effort for long periods of time is extremely difficult. They also struggle to complete duties on time, especially when informative writing is required.


This involves struggling with managing frustrations and regulating emotions. This manifests as emotion-led thoughts and behavior, and difficulty putting feelings into context. 


This includes utilizing working memory and accessing recall. People with ADHD report struggling with short-term memory and recalling particular information on demand. 


This involves monitoring and self-regulating actions. This may result in impulsivity and difficulty changing behaviors based on context, as well as setting an appropriate pace of action.


But all hope is not gone. People with or without ADHD are resilient, and can change. Our newest tool, CogniArt, was created with executive functioning in mind. It utilizes art therapy to understand the user’s functioning across three areas- focus, creativity and task management. This tool helps users understand areas they need improvement in, and it can be used to track their progress in a convenient but scientific way.