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Executive Functioning Difficulties

As its label implies, think of executive function as the CEO of our brains – the networks that control and coordinate our learning, emotions, and behaviour. 

While not a formal learning disability diagnosis, the term is widely used within the learning and performance space. 

As the world’s pace increases, academic and professional demands become more complex; we are all expected to be strong problem solvers and critical and flexible thinkers.

Student working on laptop

Executive Functioning Difficulties and Cognitive Functions

Executive Functioning difficulties can be caused by weaknesses in any of the following cognitive functions:

Symbolic Thinking

Thinking and problem solving through language

Non-Verbal Thinking

Thinking and problem solving non-verbally

Predicative Speech

Sequential logic

Symbol Relations

Fluid processing and conceptual reasoning
Teacher and student

Executive Function Difficulties Can Make it Challenging to:

  • Prioritize and manage tasks
  • Pay attention/switch focus when necessary
  • Problem solve
  • Have mental initiative  
  • Set and execute goals
  • Plan, organize, and complete tasks
  • Learn from experience (avoiding the same mistake twice)

Discover Your Unique Cognitive Profile

Arrowsmith Cognitive Questionnaire

Take our 30-minute cognitive profile questionnaire to start the journey into understanding your brain's strengths and weaknesses through a cognitive lens.

Arrowsmith Cognitive Assessment

The Arrowsmith Cognitive Assessment, administered by an Arrowsmith trained professional, will provide you with an in-depth insight into your unique cognitive profile. 

Executive Function is Often Linked With Attentional Difficulties

Student writing in class

This makes sense because many of the same cognitive functions are involved. They are the processes in the brain that control our attention and focus. 

Symbolic Thinking in our left hemisphere and Non-Verbal Thinking in our right hemisphere are designed to constantly be generating solutions to the tasks we face and to keep us on task until the solution is reached. 

In combination, four cognitive functions become our brain’s leadership team: constantly surveying the world around us, analyzing problems and opportunities, calculating risks, making decisions and – importantly – developing contingency plans.

Weaknesses in Executive Function Lead
to Reliance on External Devices

With any weaknesses in executive functioning, we must rely on external systems, strategies, even the support of other brains, to operate well. 

In fact, it’s not uncommon for parents, spouses and peers to take on the executive role in the lives of those who struggle with executive function skills. 

Parents who expected their role to change as their child grows older find they continue to step in, manage and problem solve. Spouses and colleagues find themselves burdened, picking up the slack, or simply being let down by someone who seems to fall short of their responsibilities. 

Like many difficulties, poor executive function can often be misunderstood or seen as immaturity or motivational issues.

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Executive Functioning Difficulties Do Not Need to be Lifelong

When the underlying weak cognitive capacities are identified, a program to strengthen them is possible. 

Enhancing the core cognitive capacities underlying executive function skills leads to significant improvements in learning and life. Children develop independence, grit and focus. Adults take ownership of their lives, with clarity of thought, goals and a plan to achieve them.  

Contact Arrowsmith to explore how a stronger cognitive profile can lead to enduring successes.

Interested in Exploring Executive Function Difficulties in More Detail?

You can find more information on this topic in Chapter 9, Hitting the Wall, of Barbara Arrowsmith-Young’s, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain.


Davis’s organization and quality of work produced always meets expectations. His ability to manage his time is also quite impressive.

Academic Advisor

My daughter now uses her own brain to do things, where before she was borrowing mine.

Parent of Arrowsmith Student,Canada

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