Heartland Human Services

By Pat Swartzbaugh, MS,  Licensed Clinical Social Worker


Executive function refers to a set of mental skills that are coordinated in the brain’s frontal lobe.  The functions work together to help a person achieve goals.   Around puberty the frontal part of the cortex of the brain matures, allowing individuals to perform higher-level tasks like those required in executive function.  One can think about this in terms of what a CEO of a company must do:   analyze, organize, decide, and execute.  

Similarly, the six steps of executive function are:
1.         Analyze a task
2.         Plan how to address the task
3.         Organize the steps needed to carry out the task.
4.         Develop timelines for completing the task
5.         Adjust or shift the steps, if needed, to complete the task
6.         Complete the task in a timely way

Executive function includes the ability to:
1.         Manage time and attention
2.         Switch focus
3.         Plan and organize
4.         Remember details
5.         Curb inappropriate speech  or behavior
6.         Integrate past experience with present action

When executive function breaks down, behavior becomes poorly controlled which can affect a person’s ability to:
•           Work or go to school
•           Function independently
•           Maintain appropriate social relationships

Disorders of executive function can occur when a person is born with a shortfall in executive functioning.   Executive function may also be impaired by damage to the prefrontal cortex and be  associated with a number of psychiatric and developmental disorders, which include depression, ADHD and/or learning disabilities.

Additionally, brain damage related to Alzheimer’s, strokes, or head injuries can lead to problems with executive function.

Problems with executive function can run in families and may become most apparent during a child’s grade school years when they interfere with the ability to start and complete schoolwork on time.

The good news is that the brain continues to develop well into adulthood.  A person’s executive functions are shaped by physical changes as well as life experiences.  Early attention to this condition can help children outgrow and compensate for weaknesses.  It involves a set of interrelated skills and there is no single test to identify trouble.  Psychologist, teachers, speech/language specialist and therapists rely on different tests to measure specific skills.  Problems identified by individual tests cannot predict how well adults or children will function in complex real world situations.  Sometimes, careful observations and trial teaching are more valuable ways of identifying and improving areas of weakness.

Community resources are available. You’re not alone, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s only a phone call away. To be assessed for treatment, contact Heartland Human Services at (217) 347.7179.

Psychologists advise those who have feelings of depression lasting more than two weeks to seek professional advice.  If you or a loved one are experiencing  any symptoms of depression, contact Heartland Human Services at 217-347-7179 or take a free screening at www.heartlandhs.org