Understanding Executive Skills

Byron White, Psy.D

Our understanding of the brain and how it functions across development is constantly changing. The New York Times in a web article several years ago include a computer generated image of brain development from birth through early adulthood that was fascinating and helped me to see that even a very smart child / adolescent may have areas of poor decision making due to the lack of maturity of certain brain structures.  Cognitive abilities do not develop at the same rate or to the same level of maturity with all children (and adults), but how we respond in a particular situation is a complex combination of brain development and personal advancement in a wide array of executive skills.


Over the last several years there has been an increased focus on executive skills and how these abilities impact behavior and decision making. Within school and other educational support programs there is an increasing focus not only on ability to focus and control behavior, but on speed of information processing, working memory, cognitive flexibility, frustration tolerance and a wide range of other cognitive-emotional skill sets. These are Executive Skills.  


Authors that have been focus on ADHD in the past are shifting focus to executive skills. Well that’s not quite true, they are not shifting focus, they are changing the vocabulary they use to refer to abilities that have been a concern for a long time.  One example of this is the recently published book by Thomas E. Brown, a well known author in the area of ADHD.  His new book, A New Understanding of ADHD in Children and Adults: Executive Function Impairment, this author does an excellent job of providing a description of executive skills and how deficits in these abilities produce the symptoms of ADHD.  He defines ADHD as “A complex syndrome of developmental impairments of executive functions, the self management system of the brain, a system of mostly unconscious operations. These impairments are situationally variable, chronic, and significantly interfere with functioning in many aspects of the person’s daily life.” Executive functioning impacts what we respond to in the environment, how long we stay focused, the effort we put forth, how we feel about the situation, what we recall and if we take action.   


For individuals wishing to expand their knowledge on Executive Skills this is a good book as is Smart But Scattered, by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare. 

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