Practical Executive Function Classifications

There are many different ways to organize and discuss Executive Functions. In our Understanding Executive Functions resource, we describe the three core EFs, which serve as the foundation for higher-order EFs such as problem solving, organization and planning. However, you may have come across other EF terms as well. Below, we provide a variation of a popular, practical summary of EF terms. Some appear in our Understanding Executive Functions page while others grow out of the core EFs described on that page.

Inhibition: the ability to control impulses appropriately so one can stop behavior at the appropriate time. Students with inhibition problems have difficulty “putting on the brakes.” They act without thinking and react in ways that interfere with their work.

Emotional modulation: the ability to control emotional responses. A student who struggles with emotional control may become overly frustrated and angry while doing work. They also may become anxious, overwhelmed and “shut down.”

Initiation: the ability to start a task or activity, as well as generate ideas, responses and problem solving strategies. Students with initiation problems may have difficulty starting a task or generating ideas even when they sincerely want to.

Shifting: the ability to move freely from one activity or cognitive set to another. This requires the ability to make transitions, switch attention, and change focus or direction as needed. Students with shifting problems get stuck on one task or topic.

Working memory: the ability to hold information in mind for the purpose of completing a task. Students need working memory to carry out multi-step activities, do mental arithmetic, or follow directions.

Planning: includes many critical components, such as anticipating events, setting goals, and envisioning the overall framework of a task.

Organizing: includes breaking goals down into steps that represent the most effective method of accomplishing that end. This involves reviewing prior experiences in completing similar tasks.

Managing materials: the ability to organize workspaces, materials, and possessions so that they are “functional” for task needs.

Time management: allotting time efficiently and flexibly for task completion.

Self-checking: involves checking work for mistakes, editing and being sure one is on task. Effective self-checking means being able to check back to see if the work is accomplishing the goal, or if one needs to shift approaches.

Self-awareness: involves monitoring one’s own reactions and the impact of one’s behavior on others.

Self-advocacy: involves identifying your own needs, identifying support resources, and communicating your needs to these resources.


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