Monday, September 17, 2012

What are Executive Functions?

Have you ever heard of the term executive function? A standard medical definition suggests that executive function is the cognitive process that regulates an individual’s ability to organize thoughts and activities, prioritize tasks, manage time efficiently and make decisions (American Heritage Medical Dictionary, 2010). Psychologists describe executive functions as cognitive processes that coordinate, integrate and control cognition, particularly in novel situations (Bernstein & Waber, 2007; Hughes & Graham, 2002; Marlow, 2000; Shallice & Burgess, 1991). Although similar, these definitions do show some variation. The truth is, professionals do not agree on one standard definition.

Professionals in different fields of study often have varying approaches to defining terminology. However, the difference in defining executive functioning skills extends beyond disciplinary preference. Nobel laureate and staunch advocate for investing in young children, Dr. James Heckman states, “Even the concept of executive functioning is not so clear. The same name is given to a lot of different manifestations. I can’t tell you the number of psychologists I ask and I get this mix match of things--well, it’s working memory, it’s self-control. See, working memory is totally different than self control.”

Despite the obscurity, there is consensus regarding the importance of these skills. See the videos embedded below.  The first two segments with Dr. Heckman offer information that lends to an understanding of executive function and the importance of developing such skills. The third, from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, presents executive functions as skills for life and learning.

The American Heritage® Medical Dictionary (2010, 2007), Houghton Mifflin Company.
Bernstein, J.H., & Waber, D.P. (2007). Executive capacities from a developmental perspective. In L. Meltzer (Ed.), Executive function in education (pp. 39-54). New York: Guilford Press.
Hughes, C., & Graham, A. (2002). Measuring executive functions in childhood: Problems and solutions? Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 7, 131-142.
Marlowe, W. B. (2000). An intervention for children with disorders of executive functions. Developmental Neuropsychology, 18,445-454.
Shallice, T., & Burgess, P.W. (1991). Deficits in strategy application following frontal lobe damage in man. Brain, 114, 727-741.

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