Executive functions (EFs) are “the cognitive processes that regulate an individual’s ability to sustain self-directed action toward a goal,” explained Landmark College’s (VT) Academic Support office. “They include areas of the brain responsible for planning, cognitive flexibility, rule recognition, initiating appropriate actions, inhibiting inappropriate actions, and regulating emotions.” In other words, according to the Child Mind Institute, EFs are those mental skills we use every day to get things done, from setting goals to planning how we’re going to accomplish something, prioritize, remember things, manage our time and possessions, and finish what we start.

Executive functioning issues impact college students when it comes to the basics involved with college life: attending classes, studying for exams and adhering to deadlines. Students need to be able to retain as much relevant information as possible during their time on campus to succeed academically, leadership-wise and socially. They also need to control their emotions so they’re not consistently dwelling on negative happenings, according to a Dean College (MA) blog.

Yet, “…there are many students who struggle with these critical executive functions,” the blog explained. “Whether they have ADHD, are on the autism spectrum, or are otherwise non-neurotypical, they need a little extra help when it comes to staying organized and on track.”

To better understand executive functioning and how to support students contending with concerns, here are some basics to know…

The 8 main EF skills are:

  1. Organization
  2. Task initiation
  3. Impulse control
  4. Emotion control
  5. Working memory
  6. Flexible thinking
  7. Self-monitoring
  8. Planning and prioritization

Researchers have also identified three inter-related core EFs:

  • Inhibition and Interference Control: When we use self-control to block out distractions, unwanted thoughts or memories, and impulses to focus our “attention, behavior, thoughts, and/or emotion.”
  • Working Memory: When we recall or focus on pertinent information from both verbal and nonverbal content. Working memory makes reasoning possible.
  • Cognitive Flexibility: The ability to change visual perspectives, how we think about something, adjust our opinions or understanding when new facts or information are presented, to be able to alter priorities when new circumstances arise and/or to be able to shift between topics.

And then there are the negative impacts. According to an Annu Rev Psychol journal article, students’ EFs can be negatively impacted on a day-to-day basis by factors like “stress, lack of sleep, loneliness, or lack of exercise.” Harvard Health Publishing writes that EFs can also be impacted by mental health disorders like:

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity (ADHD)
  • Depression
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Learning disabilities or
  • Autism spectrum disorder

Often, issues with EFs manifest in the following ways, according to the Child Mind Institute, with a student:

  • Being disorganized
  • Having an inability to concentrate
  • Having a lack of impulse control

Plus, reported Harvard Health Publishing, students with EF issues might:

  • Misplace their belongings
  • Have a hard time retaining what they have learned.
  • Have difficulty blocking out extraneous conversations
  • Have difficulty listening to directions in a bustling environment
  • Find it hard to be independent or plan for their futures

EF concerns can greatly impact student success on campus. Enhancing your know-how can help you be a valuable support for students in need.

This is part of the Executive Functioning Know-How course in PaperClip Communications’ How to Thrive in Student Affairs: Self-Directed Courses for New Professionals guide. Learn more here.