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Executive functioning is a set of mental processes, including working memory, flexible thinking, mental initiative, focused attention and self-control, that help us get things done.

These processes are controlled by a network of critical brain regions, including our prefrontal cortex, and help us develop skills such as: 

  • managing time

  • paying attention in class or at work

  • switching focus

  • planning and organizing

  • avoiding saying or doing the wrong thing

  • multi-tasking

  • problem solving

How effectively our brains operate has a dramatic impact on our ability to acquire and apply these executive skills. 

In our previous blog, Is ADHD a Learning Disability?, we discussed how a weakness in prefrontal functioning is one of the primary causes of ADHD. That’s because a critical role of this brain region is to regulate and sustain focus on the task at hand - whether in an academic learning situation, professional situation or in a social interaction.

Beyond attention issues, executive functioning plays an expansive role in our lives - from day to day tasks to achieving long term goals. In this blog, we explore executive functioning and how it can be improved by strengthening specific areas of the brain

The Prefrontal Cortex is Critical to Executive Functioning 

The prefrontal cortex is the anterior part of the frontal lobe, in front of the motor and premotor areas. It has been characterized as the “executive” of the brain and is often referred to as carrying out “executive functions” such as: 

  • decision making and problem solving

  • directing behaviour in terms of accomplishing goals

  • sustaining and focussing attention 

  • predicting the consequences of our actions 

  • anticipating events in our environment

  • managing emotional reactions and impulse control

  • delaying immediate gratification for more long-term reward 

  • using past learning to plan for the future 

Let’s consider how people operate in the world with different levels of executive functioning.   

We all know people in our lives - hopefully we are one of them - who are relied upon to solve  problems. Think of those colleagues and friends who take on leadership positions, whether at work or home. They absorb vast amounts of information and make complex decisions deftly, manage different and even conflicting agendas and needs. They stay calm despite chaos. 

Consider students who keep track of their assignments, manage long term projects, even balance part time jobs smoothly. Those younger children who demonstrate independence and maturity early: identified by teachers or parents as the “responsible one”, the one they don’t need to worry about. These are all individuals who possess strong executive functioning.  

Now think of the children who rely on their teachers and parents long into their high school and even into their adult years; individuals who struggle to maintain jobs, relationships, and independent lives. People who are seen as irresponsible, flighty, impulsive, and indifferent to their own problems. These may not be “personality traits” in some psychological sense, as is sometimes assumed, but the result of a weak prefrontal cortex.  

Still there are those among us - as professionals or students - who manage responsibilities with reasonable independence, but tend to rely on pre-set strategies and tools. They may be inconsistent in “keeping all the plates spinning” or may operate with competence as long as routines and expectations remain predictable. Staying cool under pressure tends not to be a strength. These are individuals with some degree of capacity of executive function, but not what one would consider a strength. 

Keep in mind, there is no ‘on/off’ switch to these processes. We all have varying degrees of capacity across the different cognitive functions. 

What Other Brain Processes are Responsible for Our Executive Functioning? 

Let’s look more closely at the functions within our prefrontal cortex, and other high order functions that make up processes inherent within executive functioning. 

Symbolic thinking: Prefrontal cortex in the left hemisphere. Activated when we’re faced with a language-based task and generates ideas about how to solve the task. Stays active and perseveres. Thinks about events that are not within the immediate environment.

Nonverbal thinking: Prefrontal cortex in the right hemisphere. Activated when we’re faced with non-verbal stimuli. Perceives and interprets non-verbal information including body language, tone of voice, facial expressions. The function behind “common sense”. 

Predicative Speech: Critical to sequential logic and communication. Our internal voice that rehearses behaviour before taking action. It remembers and applies rules of language. 

Symbol Relations: An association area in the brain. The light bulb in our heads that lights up when we ‘get it’. Responsible for making connections between concepts, for processing and synthesizing  what we see, read and hear. 

Together, these four functions act as the executive team of our brains. They survey situations, identify core opportunities and problems, call on the other ‘departments’ of our brains, and persist towards solutions. These core functions work together to adapt to our environment, to notice and remember important details, think on our feet, change direction, and importantly - learn from our mistakes. 

These functions work together. They are never at rest, and are particularly essential during new, challenging and stressful situations. 

Consider a day in the life of a student or professional, and how the above executive function network unfolds: 

Encountering a roadblock on the way to school or work: Are they “stuck”? Can they devise an alternate route independently?

Notebooks, assignments, rooms, desks: Are they sources of chaos or order? Systematic method of organization or items constantly lost? 

Multi-step tasks and projects: Daunting or delightful? Are deadlines met, results rushed, quality compromised? Are they the leader in group work, or rely on others?  

Receiving a disappointing mark or feedback: Can they maintain focus, absorb constructive criticism? Can they keep a level head? Can they learn from the feedback and modify their behaviour accordingly? 

Are they the leader of the pack? On student council or headed for C-suite? Or is life littered with social blunders or “foot in the mouth” moments, missing or misunderstanding of situations?  

When these cognitive functions are at optimal performance, skills are acquired with ease and independence. We don’t have to rely on others, or tools and pre-set strategies, to navigate our lives or manage complexities. 

Is it Possible to Strengthen the Brain and Improve Executive Functioning?

The short answer: yes. 

We can improve the very functions that underlie these processes. This means that we can sharpen our problem solving, self-direction, and planning – all critical for autonomy throughout our lives. 

We are not born with executive function skills. We develop them throughout our lifetime. Some are taught explicitly to us, others we are expected to learn from experience. We are expected to know, for example, how to study for a test, how to stand up for oneself. 

Our brains are not fixed, but change throughout our lifespan, through neuroplasticity. Our brains adapt to stimuli – positive or negative. With intention, neuroplasticity can strengthen our brains, leading to optimal efficiency and peak performance. 

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An approach that relies on the science of neuroplasticity can target, stimulate and strengthen specific functions. Individuals can engage in programs designed to improve the very functions inherent within executive function skills, and this positively impacts their experience well beyond the classroom or office. 

Improving the cognitive functions related to executive functioning means enhancing performance and skill acquisition. It means heightened problem solving, processing and communication skills. In turn, a stronger self-concept and drive to perform. Mental stimulation also helps build cognitive reserve, helping the brain better cope with stress and aging. 

This is an important fact for students and professionals. Strong executive functions enable children and adults to hone their skills of teamwork, leadership, decision-making. Boosting these functions through neuroplastic programming means enhanced capacities to work toward goals, think critically and adapt flexibly. It allows greater emotional intelligence: keen awareness of self and others, and how to navigate relationships and groups of people. 

Consider the individual and societal implications of enhancing these core cognitive functions:

  • A population ready to meet the challenges of the 21st century

  • Workforce capable of greater flexibility and productivity

  • A society of improved cohesion, and social-emotional health

  • This is a world made possible through neuroplastic programming.

Interested in learning how the Arrowsmith Program enhances executive functioning for you or your child? Contact us today. 




Tara Bonner
Post by Tara Bonner
March 28, 2023
Tara Bonner collaborates with professionals and educators worldwide, envisioning the convergence of learning and neuroscience. Tara has witnessed that cognitive programming can be a transformative force not just for struggling learners, but for all seeking to experience learning with ease and joy. She's honored to be part of these discussions and an organization that's revolutionizing education by putting the "Brain in Education."