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What is executive functioning?

Karen Dudek-Brannan, EdD, MS, CCC-SLP

February 1, 2024



What is executive functioning?


The general definition is that executive functioning refers to the set of mental processes occurring in our prefrontal cortex, allowing us to self-regulate and engage in goal-directed behavior.

Many people often link executive functioning with traits like organization, task completion, and being on time. However, it's important to remember that these external symptoms result from internal processes happening in one's head, influencing external behaviors.

Understanding the symptoms and behaviors is critical for recognizing when a student needs intervention in this area. However, it's equally important to understand how these external symptoms align with internal processes so we know how to intervene.  When implementing strategies, we want to be aware of the intricate mental processes at play. One common mistake, even with well-intentioned interventions, is overlooking these internal mental processes that are at play when doing simple day-to-day tasks that may seem mundane or common sense.

When it comes to executive functioning, there's a common perception that someone with good executive functioning is organized. They show up on time, effortlessly keep track of their belongings, and consistently submit assignments on time. While these external behaviors indicate strong executive functioning, they represent only a fraction of the whole picture. Teams working on interventions might have some components in place, often concentrating on these visible aspects but possibly overlooking the broader spectrum of executive functioning challenges and their associated internal processes.

This Ask the Expert is an excerpt from the course Executive Functioning for School-Age Children: It's More Than Being Organized, Part 1, presented by Karen Dudek-Brannan, EdD, CCC-SLP. 


karen dudek brannan

Karen Dudek-Brannan, EdD, MS, CCC-SLP

Dr. Karen Dudek-Brannan is the founder and owner/operator of Dr. Karen, LLC, company focused on empowering therapists and educators to design interventions that support language, literacy, and executive functioning. She has a doctorate in Special Education and Director of Special Education and Assistive Technology credentials from Illinois State University, as well as master's and bachelor's degrees from Illinois State University in speech-language pathology. She spent 14 years in the school systems and has held various roles in leadership and higher education teaching and mentoring clinicians and educators. She is the host of the De Facto Leaders podcast, where she shares evidence-based practices, her own experience, and guest expert interviews on topics related to education and healthcare reform.


Related Courses

Executive Functioning for School-Age Children: It's More Than Being Organized, Part 1
Presented by Karen Dudek-Brannan, EdD, MS, CCC-SLP


Karen Dudek-Brannan, EdD, MS, CCC-SLP
Course: #10740Level: Intermediate1 Hour
  'The organization of the information was perfect'   Read Reviews
This is Part 1 of a two-part series. External symptoms and internal mental processes associated with executive functioning challenges are described in this course. Skill areas that can assist intervention planning, obstacles that multidisciplinary teams may face, and common barriers to generalization associated with current service delivery models are discussed.

Executive Functioning for School-Age Children: It's More Than Being Organized, Part 2
Presented by Karen Dudek-Brannan, EdD, MS, CCC-SLP


Karen Dudek-Brannan, EdD, MS, CCC-SLP
Course: #10751Level: Intermediate1 Hour
  'Practical examples---Enthusiastic presentation'   Read Reviews
This is Part 2 of a two-part series. Implementation frameworks and team service delivery models that support K-12 students with executive functioning challenges are described. Strategies that build self-talk, time perception, and strategic planning for multi-step tasks are also discussed.

Relationships between Language and Executive Functions: Planning and Regulating
Presented by Jill K. Fahy, MA, CCC-SLP


Jill K. Fahy, MA, CCC-SLP
Course: #8998Level: Intermediate1.5 Hours
  'This entire topic is really complex but fascinating & very applicable'   Read Reviews
This is Part 2 of a two-part series. This course will detail the relationship between language and executive functions (EFs), and the nature of EF deficits in children with language disorders. The use of inner speech and self-talk to regulate behaviors and efforts, and the use of complex syntax as a tool to reason, plan, predict, and solve will be discussed. Additionally, the course will describe the use of hands-on problem solving, Socratic questions, and discovery learning to elicit language-based EFs. (Part 1: Course 8993)

Using Nonstandardized Assessment to Evaluate Cognitive-Communication Abilities in Students with Traumatic Brain Injury
Presented by Jennifer Lundine, PhD, CCC-SLP, BC-ANCDS


Jennifer Lundine, PhD, CCC-SLP, BC-ANCDS
Course: #9035Level: Intermediate1 Hour
  'The course was very informative in regards to the advantages and disadvantages of using different assessment methods'   Read Reviews
This course will address the challenges and opportunities for speech-language pathologists who evaluate cognitive-communication disorders in children and adolescents with traumatic brain injury (TBI). Specific, evidence-based strategies for nonstandard assessment will be discussed.

Executive Functioning: Targeting Students' Skills through an Interdisciplinary Lens
Presented by Katrina Fulcher-Rood, PhD, CCC-SLP, Pamela Schuetze, PhD, Kathy Doody, PhD


Katrina Fulcher-Rood, PhD, CCC-SLPPamela Schuetze, PhDKathy Doody, PhD
Course: #10327Level: Introductory1.5 Hours
  'Very helpful information provided'   Read Reviews
Executive functioning skills of children preschool-aged through young adulthood are defined and their development and importance during the school years is described in this course. Strategies to target executive functioning skills from an interdisciplinary perspective are also discussed.

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