Executive Functioning

Dr. Petrosky evaluates and consults with clients with Executive Functioning challenges to help them perform more effectively academically and socially.
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What is executive functioning?

Executive functioning is a collection of skills used to strategize, plan, and organize as well as control and regulate behavior. Executive functioning enables us to set and reach goals. The frontal lobes of the brain, which are literally located in the front part of the head, are considered to be the primary seat of executive functioning. Executive functioning can be thought of like the captain steering the ship. All hands are on deck, everyone has a job to do, and the captain has to coordinate everyone’s efforts so that the ship can reach its destination.

What are some of the executive functioning abilities?

There are multiple executive functioning abilities, with the exact number depending on how executive functioning is defined. Some of the key executive functioning abilities include:

  • Attention
  • Working memory
  • Impulse control / inhibition
  • Self-monitoring
  • Planning
  • Strategizing
  • Brainstorming
  • Time management
  • Emotional control
  • Flexibility (a deficit in which causes rigidity)
  • Initiation


What are some disorders that involve problems with executive functioning?
  • Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) / Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Others

Executive functioning also helps us file or encode information into memory storage, organize information, and retrieve information from memory storage, including generating strategies to help us recall what we know. Therefore, executive functioning deficits are also often associated with memory problems.

What’s the difference between executive functioning and Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) / Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)?

Executive functioning is a broad category of skills, with ADHD / ADD being a specific type of executive functioning problem.

What types of executive functioning challenges do people with Autism Spectrum Disorder have?

Cognitive flexibility is the ability to mentally shift gears and try new solutions or examine information from a different perspective, a deficit in which is known as cognitive rigidity. Cognitive rigidity reflects getting locked into the same, narrow, repetitive frame of mind, response, or behavior, something that is known as perseveration. Perseveration reflects difficulty “changing the channel” or trouble switching from one response to another. Children who “perseverate” may talk about the same topic, ask the same questions, watch the same video clips, etc. over and over. Children with rigidity have trouble transitioning, such as from one school activity to the next or from the home to school routine and vice versa. Rigidity also makes it hard for the child to adapt to change and to problem solve when things do not go the way s/he wants or expects.

Children with Autism have restricted interests, which is considered a form of rigidity. They also often have difficulties paying attention and may be diagnosed with ADHD in addition to Autism.

What types of executive functioning challenges are associated with depression?
  • Attention and working memory. This is why people who are depressed often have trouble concentrating.
  • Emotional control. For example, people with depression may cry uncontrollably or have irritable outbursts.
  • Rigidity. People with depression tend to get stuck in bad habits or narrow viewpoints (e.g. “I can’t do anything right” “Nothing good ever happens.”), they often repeat the same ineffective solutions, and they have trouble generating alternative perspectives and game plans for solving their problems.
  • Planning and strategizing.
What types of executive functioning challenges are associated with anxiety?
Anxiety frequently impairs attention, concentration, and working memory. It often disrupts the smooth operation of executive functioning, such as causing the person to “freeze” when performing a task the person otherwise knows how to perform well.
What types of executive functioning challenges are associated with Obsessive – Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a condition in which the individual experiences irrational, involuntary, disturbing thoughts or images, which are called obsessions. Obsessions produce anxiety, in response to which the individual performs a compulsion, which refers to a certain action, literally or mentally, in an attempt to nullify, negate, or mentally erase the obsession. There are many types of obsessions and compulsions, examples of which include a fear that one is contaminated leading to excessive hand washing or feeling as if one has done something immoral (when one has not) prompting the person to repeat a mantra in his or her head.

OCD involves trouble controlling or stopping unwanted thoughts and compulsive behavior. This reflects poor inhibition, an executive functioning ability that serves as the brain’s “stop switch,” allowing us to control thoughts and behavior.

OCD is also associated with a lack of flexibility or rigidity, which can then interfere with problem solving as the person may not be able to adapt to change, “go with the flow,” and come up with new solutions to meet the demands of changing circumstances.

How can I help my child with executive functioning challenges?
There are many, many interventions for executive functioning challenges. Special education services or private educational therapists can provide instruction and training in areas such as planning, time management, study skills, and organizational skills. Since attention and flexibility are part of executive functioning, interventions for ADHD and rigidity, such as associated with Autism, also are ways of improving executive functioning.
6 students of all ages
Executive functioning is a collection of skills used to strategize, plan, and organize as well as control and regulate behavior.