What are Executive Function skills and how can you improve them?  

Many students with learning differences may also experience challenges with developing Executive Function (EF) skills. Working on and developing EF skills can help individuals navigate school, work and various everyday environments with greater ease by helping us do things like focus attention in class or meetings, organise materials and schedules, regulate emotions and persevere through challenges. 

Learn more in this short article about EF skills and how LDS works with our learners and their families to support the ongoing development of EF skills.  

What are Executive Function (EF) skills?  

Executive Function skills are a range of daily mental processes that allow us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. These skills allow us to play with ideas in our head, think before we act, face new and unforeseen challenges, resist temptations, and stay focused (Diamond, 2013). 

Similar to how an air traffic control system at an airport helps planes on different runways land and take off safely, executive function skills are “the brain’s management system” that help us prioritise tasks, filter distractions, and control impulses. Research in the cognitive and neurological sciences has found that learning disabilities (LDs) are, in part, a result of a ‘deficit’ in one or more areas of what we refer to as executive functions (Rosenzweig, Krawec, & Montague, 2011). 

There are three main areas of executive function, all of which we work on at LDS. They are: 

1) Working Memory (WM) 

Working memory is the ability to keep information in one’s mind and work with it. Working memory is necessary to make sense of language, what is being read, and written. In mathematics, working memory helps us to solve operations or helps with the organisation and planning of tasks (Baddeley, 1992).  

It has been noticed by many researchers that working memory is a better predictor of academic success than IQ.  

2) Cognitive flexibility (also called flexible thinking) 

Cognitive flexibility is the ability to adjust to changes and priorities, such as looking at the same thing from different paths or different perspectives. Cognitive flexibility helps us to solve problems and to “think outside the box” to find a range of solutions to problems. 

3) Inhibitory control (includes self-control) 

Inhibitory control is the ability to resist an initial impulse or temptation and choose instead to control one’s attention, behaviour, thoughts or emotions to do what’s more appropriate or needed. Inhibitory control also allows us to focus attention on what is happening around us.  

EF skills are additionally responsible for skills such as: 

  • Paying attention 
  • Organising, planning, and prioritising 
  • Starting tasks and staying focused until completion 
  • Understanding different points of view 
  • Regulating emotions 
  • Perseverance  

Some easy ways to improve and develop EF skills include: 

  • Complete household chores 
  • Create and follow a schedule 
  • Participate in sports and structured activities 
  • Act out role-play scenarios or make believe 
  • Break a task into mini-tasks (also called ‘chunking’) 
  • Create a checklist for specific tasks 
  • Provide specific one-to-one instruction on executive function skill development, such as our RISE One-to-One Explicit Instruction program 

Playing games can help work on EF skills by stimulating working memory, flexible thinking and some inhibitory control. Here are some examples that we have and use at LDS: 

  • Mazes 
  • Sudoku 
  • Tic Tac Toe 
  • I Spy 
  • Distraction 
  • Guess Who 
  • Simon Says 
  • Bop it 
  • Blink 
  • Hide n seek 
  • Go Go Gelato 
  • Cards games 
  • IQ Link  
  • Connect 4 
  • Crazy 8  
  • Any card games 
  • Chess 

In our Assistive Technology studio, LDS offers some apps and hardware that can help develop EF skills:  

  • Read&Write: provides highlighters to identify key ideas when reading online 
  • Echo Smartpen: assists with note-taking 
  • MindMiester: provides tools for graphic/visual organisation of ideas and information  
  • FocusCalm: assists with self-regulation 
  • Muse: assists with self-regulation  

You can see more about our assistive technology here, including booking an AT tour with our staff by contacting  

Do you have more questions about EF skills, your learner or yourself? Please feel free to reach out to see if we can support your learning needs through one of our programs or a brief coaching session.  

– Sofia Lopez Nakashima, Case Manager and Instructor

LDS is a community of dedicated professionals that write collaboratively. We recognize the contribution of unnamed team members for their wisdom and input.