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What Are the 12 Executive Functioning Skills?

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

Trauma disconnects us, making it difficult for us to access the parts of our brain responsible for executive functioning skills. When we understand how trauma impacts us, it becomes easier to see trauma playing out in our day-to-day lives.


A small disorganized office, papers taped to the wall and piled on top of the desk, stacks of files and DVDs litter the floor, represents the consequences when we struggle to access the 12 executive functioning skills

What does executive functioning mean?

Executive functioning refers to a set of cognitive processes that are responsible for goal-directed behavior, decision-making, and self-regulation. It involves the ability to plan, organize, initiate, and sustain actions in order to achieve a specific goal. These cognitive processes and skills are also essential for managing and regulating our behavior and emotions.


Although there are many executive functioning skills, and they are deeply interrelated, there are 12 key skills worth knowing. So, what are the 12 executive functioning skills?


What are the 12 executive functioning skills?


1. Inhibition

Inhibition refers to the ability to control impulses and resist distractions. When we use our inhibition, we exercise self-restraint and intentional decision-making.


2. Task initiation

In addition to not turning every thought into an action, we need our executive functioning skills to transform our desired thoughts into action. This process is task initiation.


3. Working memory

Working memory is the ability to retain information in your mind. Working memory is crucial for task completion, active listening and communication, and critical thinking.


4. Defining and achieving goals

Executive functioning skills are also responsible for our ability to think to the future, create big-picture goals, and break those goals down into smaller action steps. We need our executive functioning skills to achieve goals in addition to setting them.


5. Focus

When we focus, we can say no to distractions, whether they are internal or external. Our ability to focus allows us to hone in on the key points, keep our “north star” in mind, and see a project through to the end.


6. Planning & prioritization

Our executive functioning allows us to understand the big picture and order values, tasks, and goals in order of priority. It also enables us to understand how complex pieces fit together so that we can appropriately plan out steps sequentially.


7. Organization

In addition to organizing tasks through planning, our executive functioning skills are responsible for our ability to organize our thoughts and belongings. When we can access our executive functioning skills, we can think logically and keep our space organized.


8. Time management

Time management is another important executive functioning skill, especially in the landscape of today’s workforce. Time management allows us to appropriately estimate time, allocate resources, and meet deadlines.


9. Flexibility

Flexibility is the ability to shift. When we are in our executive functioning, we can transition between tasks and mental states, as well as pivot when plans change or we need new solutions.


10. Observation

When we maintain access to our executive functioning skills, we have the ability to observe ourselves and others without judgement. We can self-reflect and evaluate our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in addition to understanding how and why others think, feel, and act a certain way.


11. Stress tolerance

Our executive functioning skills are also responsible for our ability to tolerate stress. When we maintain control over the logical parts of our brain, we can remain grounded in reality and coach ourselves through tough times.


12. Emotional regulation

Similarly, our executive functioning is responsible for our ability to regulate our emotions. Whether we are angry or grieving, our executive functioning skills allow us to feel and process our emotions in a healthy way, ensuring our behavior doesn’t harm us or those around us.


Problems with executive functioning

When we experience events that overwhelm our ability to cope, we endure psychological harm. This harm is trauma, and trauma has a profound impact on the mind and body. The trauma-informed model of executive functioning vs. trauma brain helps us connect the impact of trauma to our daily lives.


Trauma rewires the brain, and when we have a trauma response, we become stuck in “trauma brain” mode. When we are in trauma brain mode, it’s like a switch has been flipped, and all connections to the parts of our brain responsible for executive functioning shut down.


As you can imagine, when we are in a trauma state and we cannot emotionally regulate, plan for the future, tolerate stress, or control our impulses, our behaviors become self-destructive and can even harm those around us.


Consider the last time you felt overwhelmed (it happens to all of us). In that moment of overwhelm, what did you do?


Did you lash out at a loved one? Maybe you abandoned your task? Were you more irritable than usual? Did you lose track of time or become anxious that there wasn’t enough time? All of these are trauma responses that indicate you were in a trauma state. All of these are also signs that you were disconnected from your executive functioning.


Building resilience to stay in our executive functioning

Trauma has real consequences for our lives, but having trauma doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to a life without access to your executive functioning skills. There are concrete and evidence-based solutions for healing from trauma and building resilience through trauma-informed change.


Understanding the relationship between trauma and executive functioning is knowledge that empowers us to solve the problem.


Share your thoughts below to engage with our trauma-informed community, or join us for Mindful Mondays on the second Monday of each month.


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