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The Best Way to Improve Executive Functioning Skills

What are executive functioning skills and how can we strengthen them?

Dr. J. Stuart Ablon

You may have heard the phrase “executive functioning skills.” It is becoming more and more common language for parents and educators alike and even in the workplace. So what exactly are executive functioning (EF) skills? They are a family of interrelated skills in areas like managing our emotions, controlling our behavior, focusing and shifting our attention, holding multiple pieces of information in our mind at one time, and thinking flexibly. Specific examples include controlling our impulses, staying calm in the midst of frustration, handling changes, initiating and sticking with an activity or task, shifting from one task to another, filtering out distractions, multi-tasking, and even perspective-taking (Wang et al, 2018).

Neuropsychologists have long recognized that EF skills are critical to reasoning, planning, problem-solving, and managing life’s demands in general. Given how crucial these life skills are, it is not surprising that good EF skills are associated with things like better achievement, health, economic stability, and relationship success in addition to preventing substance use and incarceration, and with general quality of life (Diamond & Ling, 2016).

Let’s discuss the good news first: EF skills can be improved. Like any other skill, EF skills improve with practice, and the research shows the more practice, the better. Also, like many other skills, if you don’t keep practicing, you likely will lose the skills you may have gained. In other words, when it comes to EF skills, it is “use it or lose it.” Research has also shown that it is important to make sure the practice is challenging to keep skills sharp (Diamond & Ling, 2016). The complexity and novelty of training help. And relying on external rewards to motivate someone to practice actually decreases EF performance.

So what’s the bad news? EF skills don’t transfer or generalize that easily from the situations in which they are practiced to other situations. In other words, if you practice EF skills in artificial circumstances, don’t expect them to look better in the real world.

But back to some good news: If you take what we know about how best to build EF skills into account, approaches like Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) are tailor-made for the job (Ablon, 2019). CPS improves EF by helping people practice EF skills through natural attempts at problem-solving in their own lives (Pollastri et al, 2013). Parents, teachers, mentors, managers, and supervisors can use the three ingredients of the CPS process to tackle any problem that comes up during the day. Baked into the CPS problem-solving process is the opportunity to practice dozens of EF skills. Each situation provides a new opportunity to practice those skills without needing to translate them into the “real world” because they are already being practiced in the real world using real problems.

Like it or not, real life also throws us plenty of opportunities to try our hand at solving complex problems, so the practice never gets old or stops and doesn’t require taking extra time out of the day to practice. We also know dosing is important for any form of skill-building, since skill-building is code for changing the brain, and changing the brain requires repetition without hammering away too much, or neural networks become “refractory” and stop responding (Perry & Ablon, 2019). Using naturally occurring problems as the practice field for building skills supplies new opportunities spaced out throughout the day/week.

Finally, when using CPS, we teach people to resist using motivators to solve problems. On the contrary, we help people see that when someone is struggling to handle a situation well, it is most likely an issue of skill, not will. And incentives don’t teach skills. But problem-solving practice does—especially EF skills.

Previous research has shown that CPS builds neurocognitive or thinking skills, especially EF skills, but we again put this idea to the empirical test in a study with our partner, Youth Villages, led by Dr. Lu Wang and Dr. Alisha Pollastri of our research team.

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We studied whether delivering in-home CPS improved EF skills over time by looking at youth, caregiver, and staff reports and administering objective, tablet-based neuropsychological tests. CPS was associated with building youth’s overall EF skills, specifically flexible thinking, attention, and working memory skills. We also wanted to explore what factors might predict these changes and learned that the more caretakers embraced the philosophy of CPS (remember it’s about skill, not will), the more skill growth happened, resulting in better behavior. These findings provide empirical validation of the theory of change behind the CPS approach: behavior is determined by skill, not will. When we shift our thinking to realize this and focus on practicing problem-solving instead of relying on incentives, EF skills improve, resulting in behavior changes.



Diamond, A., & Ling, D. S. (2016). Conclusions about interventions, programs, and approaches for improving executive functions that appear justified and those that, despite much hype, do not. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 18, 34–48.

Wang L, Pollastri AR, Vuijk PJ, Hill EN, Lee BA, Samkavitz A, Braaten EB, Ablon JS, Doyle, AE. (2018) Reliability and validity of the Thinking Skills Inventory, a screening tool for cross-diagnostic skill deficits underlying youth behavioral challenges. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 41:1, 144-159.

Ablon JS. (2019) What Is Collaborative Problem Solving and Why Use the Approach?. In: Pollastri A., Ablon J., Hone M. (eds) Collaborative Problem Solving. Current Clinical Psychiatry. Springer, Cham

Pollastri, AR, Epstein, LD, Heath, GH, & Ablon, JS. The Collaborative Problem Solving approach: Outcomes across settings. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 2013, 21(4), 188-199.

Perry BD, Ablon JS. (2019) CPS as a Neurodevelopmentally Sensitive and Trauma-Informed Approach. In: Pollastri A., Ablon J., Hone M. (eds) Collaborative Problem Solving. Current Clinical Psychiatry. Springer, Cham

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