How Educators and Academic Content Creators Can Address Executive Function Skill Needs
February 28 2023
Executive Function

We all grew up learning from our parents, teachers, and others: Focus and work hard.

These fundamental aspects of living are now being packaged and marketed as teachable skills.

Turning these essential components of life into classwork started happening during the pandemic when kids were no longer in the classroom. It became more challenging than ever for them to do the basics: focusing and working hard on learning.

COVID-19 and Executive Function

Before the pandemic, teachers typically handled most of the classroom planning and learning processes. During the COVID lockdown, students and their parents were suddenly expected to navigate the planning — and much of the learning — processes on their own. Many students were struggling, and the learning challenges resulting from it have played out in falling reading and math test scores.

The education industry is packaging up the fundamentals of life and learning as executive function (EF) skills. According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, EF skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.

SEL and Character Education

Executive function skills are interconnected with social-emotional learning (SEL) and character education (character ed). SEL teaches students how to understand and manage emotions, show empathy, set goals, maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. Character Ed is about evolving into good citizens. These disciplines aren’t inherently formal academic concepts. They’re about forming solid students that grow into honest and effective adults.

Learn more about SEL and character education in this in-depth article.

The relationship among EF, SEL, and character ed is complex. Executive function educates on taking in information and weighing options to make the best possible decisions. SEL adds contextual awareness on top of the decision-making process. Character ed goes further and teaches the rules necessary to be good and valued citizens.

Educators know that executive function skills, SEL awareness, and character ed are paramount to students’ academic and personal success. The process of learning these concepts starts early in the K to 12 cycle and continues throughout.

Executive function must be introduced early so students can begin to take control over their learning. It’s critical to revisit it during middle school when kids are suddenly forced to manage multiple teachers for the first time.

SEL is typically taught in tandem with executive function skills. It shows students how to work effectively in school, being able to cooperate, connect, and work with other kids and teachers. These are all the fundamental things required to be good learners.

Character ed typically kicks in later, when students can better understand the more complex moral rules and precepts that are part of it. Character ed is often integrated into other curricula rather than taught as a stand-alone, so students understand the value of what they learn in the real world. For instance, they could learn why it’s essential to practice honest accounting methods as part of a math lesson or see examples of being a good citizen in history class.

Integrating All Three

Curriculums are being developed to better serve students in these basic yet essential areas. Teachers are pressuring content creators and publishers to produce more, including traditional lessons, opportunities to practice skills, vetted open educational resources, and integrations into other subjects.

The only way the education industry can be successful is to give students the skills they need to learn. It’s the foundation of becoming a good student. Teachers must teach executive learning and the related concepts of SEL and character ed. Publishers must actively support them by creating the content they need to explain and demonstrate the value of these foundational — yet complex — concepts in the classroom and everyday situations.

This is the reality of post-pandemic education