We all grew up hearing: Be positive, flexible, and work hard.
These three fundamental tenants of brain management are now packaged and marketed in education as teachable entities known as executive function (EF) skills.
Executive function is a term used in neuroscience and education. It describes the neurological processes related to mental control and self-regulation. Executive functions control and regulate cognitive and social behaviors like:
- Handling impulses
- Paying attention
- Remembering information
- Interacting with others
- Planning and organizing time and materials
- Responding to social situations in appropriate ways
- Dealing with stressful situations.
These are all things children and teens need to gain control over to succeed in school, the workplace, and everyday life.
Experts believe executive function is regulated by the prefrontal cortex (front lobe of the brain). Because babies have brains that are not fully developed, children must learn EF skills because they’re not born with them.
Executive function skills are interconnected with social-emotional learning (SEL), the process through which individuals understand and manage emotions, show empathy, set goals, maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. The relationship between SEL and EF can be seen as one in which executive function facilitates taking in information and weighing options to make the best decisions. SEL adds contextual awareness to the decision-making process.
Educators know EF skills and SEL awareness are paramount to students’ academic success. These are life skills for any age, and the sooner an individual is aware of them, the sooner they can apply them to their own lives.
Like social-emotional learning, students develop executive functions differently and at their own pace. Educators and content developers need to recognize these differences to create educational experiences and content that meet the needs of a range of learners. This article explains how.
Offering The Right Educational Support for Every Student
Addressing an executive function deficit requires educators identifying what it is and using the correct tactics and tools to correct it.
For example, if students can’t control their impulse to speak while others are talking, they must be taught active listening. They should be presented with examples of what it is, perhaps in video form or through classroom demonstrations. They also need exercises that allow them to practice it. Educational publishers must provide teachers with lesson plans to help teach active listening and all the other executive function skills, plus the tools required for students to learn, understand, and practice them.
Publishers also need to provide different learning experiences for students of different ages. In the previous example, content creators might develop a checklist for younger students to follow to help them practice active listening. For older ones, they may provide the tools required to create their own checklist.
Another critical strategy for addressing executive function deficits is using metacognitive language. With this approach, you present students the steps — or ask them questions — to help them learn a new executive function skill. For instance, with a younger student, stating the challenge could be helpful. Here’s an example of how this works: "I see that you don’t have crayons. You will need a set to color a picture. How do you get some crayons so you can finish the project?"
Here is another way to use metacognitive tactics in the classroom. Students repeat directions they get from the teacher to a partner and then have the partner repeat the direction to the class. This type of learning usually takes less than a minute. However, it allows extra time for auditory processing and repetition for students who require it. It’s an example of how educators and content creators can leverage novel learning methods to serve the needs of a broad range of students.
Top Executive Function Challenges and How to Address Them
Here are some of the biggest EF challenges educators face in the classroom and tactics that can help resolve them.
Time management is one of the most challenging skills to teach young learners. Traditionally, teachers post schedules for students to follow to help develop time management capabilities. However, these schedules often fall flat with many learners.
What’s more powerful is giving kids tools to develop and manage schedules, for instance, an activity that allows them to work together to create a classroom schedule. This will enable them to understand the "why" behind it and give them some ownership. As a final step, provide the kids with tools, for instance, an app, that allows them to design schedules for their own use and to display in the classroom. This approach could result in a lifelong respect for time management and maintaining schedules. It’s an example of an activity academic content creators and education technology professionals could develop to directly teach an executive function capability.
Long-term assignments are particularly challenging for students with time management limitations. One way to address this issue is by developing learning experiences that allow students to map out more significant projects and break them into smaller, manageable pieces. Learners can use a calendar linked to the activity to determine when each smaller assignment will need to be finished and document it on the calendar. In this case, educators and content creators are helping improve a critical executive function skill as a part of teaching another subject, for instance, social studies.
Remembering information is a significant executive function gap for many learners. The good news is that it’s a competency that can be taught by structuring lessons properly. Provide opportunities for students to review previous learning. It could be a quick oral presentation, a class discussion, or maybe a game or quiz. A review could also take the form of a mind or concept map developed in small groups. Concept maps are helpful graphic organizers for note-taking, comparing and contrasting concepts, and writing. This flexibility allows students with different abilities to work together toward a single goal all the while learning new ways to remember information.
Support Teachers in Identifying and Addressing Executive Function Issues
Of course, teachers are central to helping students develop executive function capabilities. Educators must check in frequently with students to identify deficits and provide discrete support when needed. In large classrooms, that can be challenging. It’s why educational content creators must provide teachers with tools that help them identify executive skill gaps, including ones built into their coursework that indicate things like comprehension or concentration issues. This will empower them to step in and provide students with invaluable support to get them up to speed on these necessary skills.
Executive Function Skills: The Bottom Line
EF takes time to develop fully, and it happens at different rates and ways in children. The human brain's prefrontal cortex constantly grows and changes in young kids and adolescents. Because of the human brain’s plasticity and enormous capacity for learning, it is critical for educators and academic content creators to develop and deliver experiences to optimize executive function in learners, whether directly or through broader classroom lessons.