The 3 areas of executive function

By The Understood Team

At a glance

  • Executive function is a group of important mental skills.

  • These skills fall under three areas of executive function.

  • The three areas of executive function are working memory, flexible thinking, and inhibitory control.

Not all experts look at executive function in the same way. But many view it as a group of important skills that include:

These skills can impact kids and adults at home, at school, and in social situations.

The three areas of executive function

According to many experts, all five of those executive functioning skills fit under these three umbrellas:

What it is: The ability to keep information in mind and then use it in some way

Example: A student might use this skill to read a text on an English test, hold on to the information, and then use it to answer questions.

2. Cognitive flexibility (also known as flexible thinking)

What it is: The ability to think about something in more than one way

Example: A student might use this skill to answer a math problem in two ways or to find relationships between different concepts.

3. Inhibitory control (includes self-control)

What it is: The ability to ignore distractions and resist temptation

Example: A child might use this skill to keep from blurting out an answer in class. It helps kids regulate their emotions and keep from acting impulsively.

Skills related to executive function

Here are some other skills that might be hard for people who struggle with executive function.

Reflection: Reflection is a process that allows people to stop and think before they respond to something. This skill is key for solving problems. The more kids practice reflection, the better they get at it.

Processing speed: Kids need to go through the reflection process quickly to solve problems on time. That’s where processing speed comes in. Some experts view this skill as the engine that drives how well people use executive functioning skills to solve problems and achieve goals.

You might also hear about something called “hot executive function.” This comes into play in situations that aren’t emotionally “neutral.” It helps people manage their emotional reactions. Kids might rely on hot executive function during a spelling bee to keep their excitement or anxiety in check. Others might use it to resist temptation.

Have you heard of the marshmallow test? It's a famous experiment about executive functioning skills. See the marshmallow test in action. Then see what a day in the life of a child with executive functioning challenges is like.

Key takeaways

  • We use executive functioning skills all the time.

  • Students use them to keep from blurting things out or to answer problems in more than one way.

  • Kids and adults can build these skills.

    Tell us what interests you


    About the author

    About the author

    The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Philip D. Zelazo, PhD is the Nancy M. and John E. Lindahl Professor at the Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota.