Executive Functioning

Compositive Model

Executive Functioning

Executive functioning involves selecting and successfully monitoring behaviors that facilitate the attainment of chosen goals. Psychologist Phillip Zelazo, in a 1997 study, said the executive main purpose of executive functioning is problem-solving that involves “…representing a problem flexibly, planning organized sequences of thought or action, executing those sequences, and evaluating the results of one’s rule use.” Developing executive functions is a key component of cultivating a whole mind.

Research has found that

  • Executive functioning predicts children’s math and literacy skills as well as children’s learning behaviors and engagement. 
  • Executive functioning is associated with math achievement, learning-related behaviors like self-directed learning, and engagement in learning among kindergarten students.
  • One oft-cited study found that among kindergarten children, executive functioning and specifically inhibitory control was positively associated with children’s pre-literacy skills (i.e., phonemic awareness and letter knowledge).
  • Another study found that among pre-kindergarten students, executive functioning skills were associated with growing mathematical skills, and with reading achievement in kindergarten. 
  • Executive functioning in fourth-graders was found by another study to inhibit snack food consumption.

As described in the problem solving section above, the Tools of the Mind program is designed to promote executive functioning in young children. This includes the subcategories detailed below: working memory, inhibition, and cognitive flexibility.

Working memory

Psychologist Adele Diamond defines working memory as “working with information no longer perceptually present,” or “holding information in mind and mentally working with it.” How does working memory affect cognitive processes?

  • A 2004 study demonstrated that elementary school children who score high on English and mathematic assessments have higher levels of performance on working memory tests compared to their counterparts who score at low or average levels on English and mathematic assessments. 
  • That same study showed that among adolescents, math and science ability as reflected in test scores clearly correlated with working memory scores. But the same wasn’t true with English test scores and working memory scores.


Adele Diamond defines inhibition in the context of executive function as “the ability to control one’s attention, behavior, thoughts, and emotions to override a strong internal predisposition or external lure, and instead do what is more appropriate or needed.”

She divides inhibition into two broad categories. Self-control, Diamond says, “is the aspect of inhibitory control that involves resisting temptations and not acting impulsively.” 

Inhibitory control “consists of staying focused on what you intend to focus on despite distractions (including distracting thoughts or distractions in the environment). Another aspect of inhibitory control is having the discipline to stay on task despite distractions and completing a task despite temptations to give up, to move on to more interesting work, or to have a good time instead.”

Research studies have found that

  • Inhibition develops over time and is associated with children’s academic skills. 
  • Inhibitory control during early childhood is associated with children’s pre-literacy and math skills.
  • Inhibition and working memory are not differentiated in early childhood, but become separate as children age and enter adolescence.

Cognitive flexibility

Diamond describes cognitive flexibility, or shifting, as “the ability to change perspectives on a problem and adjust to a new situation with new demands and constraints.” Research has shown the cognitive flexibility is associated with positive academic outcomes. A 2001 study found that children with higher mathematical abilities were more proficient at task-shifitng.

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