Executive Functions


What are they?

Executive functions are higher order cognitive processes that assist in managing oneself to achieve a goal. This can include skills related to general organization and planning, working memory, flexible thinking, inhibition and self-regulation, and problem-solving. Executive functions change throughout childhood and adolescence and are receptive to intervention.

Although there are different models of executive functions, one common framework groups them into Hot Executive Functions (skills needed when emotions run high), and Cool Executive Functions (skills used when emotions are not involved).

Hot Executive Functions

(Affects motivational processing; associated with emotional regulation)

Cool Executive Functions

(Abstract, de-contextualized processes; closely associated with academic performance)

  • Shifting & Flexibility
  • Initiation
  • Self-Monitoring
  • Inhibition & Emotional Regulation
  • Planning & Organization
  • Working Memory
  • Sustaining Attention


When do you use them?

Executive functioning skills develop from childhood into adulthood. These skills become increasingly important with age to navigate school, relationships, vocation, etc. Students are required to use executive functioning skills throughout their day both within and outside of the classroom.

Weak executive function is a common characteristic in individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder .Difficulty paying attention, planning and carrying out work, memorizing information, starting tasks, transitioning between tasks, and regulating emotions are all signs of executive function difficulties.

When students have executive function deficits, strategies may involve changing the environment and/or teaching skills and routines through prompting, cueing and repetition so that over time they can use the skills independently.

What strategies are available?

Hot Executive Functions

Shifting & Flexibility

  • Provide a predictable environment
  • Provide transition supports
  • Provide systematic exposure to new situations and environments
  • Teach turn-taking, perspective-taking, and self-regulation



  • Develop visual schedules and routines
  • Premack schedules (non-preferred followed by preferred tasks); use timers
  • Support student through the first portion of the task
  • Teach how to ask for help (provide visual support)


  • Impose time limits; provide reminders using a timer
  • Provide time for self-review (using a self-monitoring checklist, or video self-modeling)
  • Teach how to ask for help and a break (provide visual cues)
  • Teach independent use of schedules


Inhibition and Emotional Control

  • Clarify expectations within specific environments; use visuals to demonstrate consequences for using expected behaviour
  • Limit distractions
  • Reinforce expected behaviour
  • Teach functionally equivalent replacement behaviours
  • Teach coping strategies

Cool Executive Functions

Planning & Organization

  • Break down tasks
  • Use checklists, calendars, and schedules
  • Create project timelines
  • Use graphic organizers
  • Teach how to prioritize, break-down long-term goals into short-term goals, and plan deadlines


Working Memory

  • Provide written instructions
  • Provide additional processing time
  • Gain student’s attention before giving instructions
  • Teach memory strategies (e.g. mnemonic devices, visualization)
  • Have student repeat instructions in their own words

Sustaining Attention

  • Premack schedules (non-preferred followed by preferred tasks)
  • Teach student to break tasks into smaller steps
  • Use a visual support and timer to demonstrate work and break times
  • Reinforce on-task behaviour
  • Use incentives




For more strategies and information on Executive Functions, refer to the POPARD handout

Related Resources:

Cooper-Kahn, J. & Dietzel, L. (2008). Late, lost and unprepared: A parent’s guide to helping children with executive functioning: MD: Woodbine House Publishing

Dawson, P. & Guare, R. (2004). Executive skills in children & adolescents: A practical guide to assessment  and intervention. NY: Guildford Press

Dawson, P. & Guare, R. (2009). Smart but scattered: The revolutionary “executive skills” approach to helping kids reach their potential. NY: Guildford Press