Understanding the Executive Functions of the Brain

20 January 2022
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The executive functions of the brain refer to a set of mental skills which include working memory, flexible thinking, self control and more. These skills are crucial for successful learning in the classroom. Ideally, students should be exhibiting the skills below by early adolescence, however they can continue to develop into adulthood.


By definition, planning refers to the ability to think about the future and create a plan of action. This also includes considering and prioritizing the different variables of a plan. An example is writing a to-do list at the beginning of a school project.

Flexible Thinking

When a student encounters a challenge, flexible thinking enables them to problem solve and adapt to the situation as needed. For example, if a student is walking to school and encounters a roadblock, flexible thinking will allow them to find an alternate route.

Working Memory

Working memory is a brain function that allows a student to retain and temporarily store a limited amount of information so that it can be referred to later. A game of concentration, in which students would need to flip one card over at a time and remember where certain cards were so that they could be paired later on, is a perfect example of this.

Self Control

Self-control is the ability to restrain oneself from an emotional or physical outburst. It allows a student to think before acting, rather than acting impulsively. For example, if a student loses a game, self-control allows them to accept the situation and proceed calmly.

Time Management

This skill is essential for a variety of reasons. For one, students that have good time management skills are able to prioritize and complete tasks in a timely manner. It enhances punctuality and productivity. For instance, a student who demonstrates proper time management will be able to complete a school project by or before its deadline.


Organization refers to a students’ ability to arrange materials, equipment and thoughts in an orderly manner. Organization can also be displayed in the way a student recalls and tells a true story.

Executive Functioning Shutdown

If a student’s executive functioning has been “shut down”, they may have difficulty switching from task to task due to dampened flexible thinking. Additionally, it may be hard for them to hold new information in their mind due to a decrease in their working memory. Below are a few other examples of how executive function shutdown displays itself in the classroom:

  • Inability to plan ahead
  • Forgetting to complete tasks
  • Trouble following conversations
  • Difficulty remembering steps of processes
  • Unable to multitask
  • Being overly emotional

How to Improve a Student’s Executive Functioning Skills

Do you know a student who struggles with certain executive functioning skills? The BrainAhead program can help! Learn more about the program here.

Read more about Student Mental Health here.

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