Executive Function/Thinking Skills: Instinct Or Intentional Action?

Updated: Jan 6

Spiders demonstrate untaught behavior when it’s time to catch food. It has to spin a web. This untaught behavior is what we call instinct. According to Google’s English dictionary by Oxford Languages - "Instinct is an innate, typically fixed pattern of behavior in animals in response to certain stimuli."

Watching the spider make a web reveals some interesting behavior when it performs and completes the task. Each part of the task mimics cognitive-type behaviors or executive function (EF) skills.

Beautiful Spider Web Build Time-lapse | BBC Earth

With the untaught behavior and built-in capacity, the spider takes action towards what it needs to do. Assessing the environment, picking a location, and how to go about building the web. The web could be made in a burrow, between two plants or objects, at a corner or space in your home, around your home, or abandoned buildings. The spider is innately aware of its ability to produce silk. The spider works tirelessly going around in circles until it reaches the outer edge. The work seems monotonous and tedious but with its urgent need to feed, time is of the essence... until it finally completes the task.

The actions that are seen when the spider makes its web are innate or inborn. Even though the spider’s actions are innate, it displays behavior that parallel EF skills. Human beings are highly complex and intelligent creatures. We too have innate behaviors. Our innate behaviors help us survive. They include self-preservation, reproduction, and social connection. Nobody teaches us these behaviors and we do not have to practice them. Survival behaviors are inborn. Conversely, executive function skills are not inborn...they are learned. Since we are highly complex and intelligent beings, we can implement EF skills on purpose.

EF skills help us to concentrate to learn, remember information that we have learned and use it to solve problems, learn from the mistakes we make, be able to control the urge to act on a whim, organize our belongings, and use time efficiently. EF skills begin to develop when we are born. These skills like motor and sensory processing develop with input from the environment. Throughout life, we develop these skills when we actively engage with our environment. The brain changes and new connections are made when we face novel or unfamiliar experiences. New experiences promote problem-solving skills and growth.

InBrief: Executive Function

When we engage infants and children, providing input that promotes neural connections is important. Infants (0 to 5 months) are engaged to promote motor learning, attention, and social interaction. Appropriate attachment to caregivers lays a good foundation for infants to develop further EF skills. Additional EF skills are developed after 6 months and are founded on working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control - EF skills that are the framework of self-regulation. (We will look at self-regulation in another blog).

Using the three foundational skills (working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control), children 6 months and older can be engaged in games and interaction that enhance self-awareness, self-regulation, initiation, organization, planning, goal-directed persistence, time-management, and self-monitoring.

Pre-teens and teens are moving towards independence in many areas of daily life: self-care, productivity (home, school, work, community), sleep/rest, leisure exploration, and health management. BrainWings, LLC| Occupational Therapy & Wellness for Adolescents

They need to be able to tap into these skills as demands increase.

  • Self-regulation (the umbrella for self-control): being able to manage oneself to behave appropriately (this includes emotions)

- Attention: noticing or deliberate observation of ourselves, another person or an event

- Self-control: stopping oneself from engaging impulsively

- Mental flexibility: adjusting thinking and behavior if change happens

- Working memory: recalling and using information functionally

  • Initiation: starting a task

  • Self-monitoring: keeping track of yourself and your work

  • Planning: looking ahead and having an intention to meet a goal

  • Organization: The ability to arrange objects and thoughts for easy access

  • Time management: using time efficiently to finish tasks

  • Goal-directed persistence - following through with a goal with effort and focus


EF skills are intentional actions that can be explicitly taught throughout adolescence and into young adulthood. Studies show that EF skills do not mature until 25 years of age. However, it is also recognized that neuroplasticity occurs throughout our lives. Learning EF skills can be beneficial whether one has a diagnosis or not. Pre-teens, teens, and young adults are learning how to use EF skills to tackle change - physical changes, zealous emotions, and a need for freedom and independence. Occupational Therapy can help improve EF skills.


What does difficulty with executive function look like? To qualify as difficulties, these observations must be frequent and impact everyday function

  • Forgets how to complete tasks in sequence

  • Has a difficult time staying focused on tasks and jumps from one task to another

  • Does not check work or has trouble completing homework in a timely manner

  • Unable to look ahead to prioritize or plan for important tasks or events

  • Unable to keep him/herself from blurting out answers or is generally impulsive

  • Can be the class clown inappropriately

  • Has difficulty applying concepts or information to solve new problems

  • Needs reminders for routine things

  • Difficulty estimating how much time a task might take or using their time efficiently

  • Has a hard time following simple or multi-step directions

  • Loses or misplaces homework assignments or important items

  • The room, locker, desk, or backpack is always messy to the point that things cannot be found easily

  • Tends to give up easily at the first sign of failure, sometimes with significant upset

  • Has difficulty assessing their emotions, behaviors, and thoughts

  • Has difficulty adapting when changes happen

  • Has trouble starting projects or assignments

  • Does not ask for help when needed

  • Tends to have difficulty reviewing their performance and making adjustments as needed

Don’t Forget the Effect of the Emotional Brain on Students' Executive Functions

EF delays are prevalent in many diagnoses and circumstances:

  • Children who have been neglected, abused, or lived in high stress environments

  • Research also indicates that most children with ADD, ADHD, and learning disorders exhibit EF delays

  • Children with Autism Spectrum disorders also fall under this umbrella

  • Children without a formal diagnosis can also struggle with EF skills

  • Day-to-day overwhelming stressors

  • Anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses can impact EF skills both in children with or without diagnoses

Unlike the spider whose main behavior suggests a simple need to survive with fixed actions and products, human beings have a complex need to thrive and be versatile. The spider uses innate abilities to produce threads and silk to design a web. Human beings - in addition to innate behaviors, have the capacity for intentional actions or EF skills. Executive function skills help us manage ourselves, learn, understand and reason, solve problems, make decisions, plan for the future, and voluntarily move or act. We can tap into and use our emotions positively. We can reflect, imagine, design, and innovate. Versatility for human beings brings the opportunity not only to survive but to thrive.