Every day in the classroom, students are expected to engage in tasks such as paying attention to and remembering information, completing their work on time, waiting to speak until they’re called upon, and asking for help when they need it. If a child has difficulty with these tasks, executive function (EF) may be at the root of the issue.

EF is a set of mental skills or processes that help a child or an adult work toward objectives and accomplish tasks. The role of EF in a student’s thinking and behavior is similar to that of an air traffic controller. For example, an air traffic controller must safely and efficiently manage the arrivals and departures of several aircraft on multiple runways, directing each plane and keeping pilots informed of any potential issues. To carry out their daily responsibilities, air traffic controllers must be able to focus their attention, filter out distractions, set and achieve goals, prioritize and juggle multiple tasks, and control impulses. A student has to do this as well.

In fact, effective learning depends on core EF skills. By building these skills, educators can improve students’ academic learning and their social emotional development.

Core components of EF
EF includes three core components: inhibition, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. These functions are interrelated and often work in conjunction with each other.

  • Inhibition is the ability to control inappropriate behaviors or responses and resist distractions. Attentional control is a core component of inhibition. One type of attentional control, selective attention, acts as a filter on learning. This filter allows a child to focus on the teacher’s instruction or a book while ignoring the whispers of classmates, the chirps of birds outside the window, the colorful posters on the classroom walls, and the pitter-patter of footsteps in the hall.
  • Working memory is the ability to hold and manipulate pieces of information for short periods of time. This includes phonological and verbal working memory, and the visuospatial sketchpad. Working memory is essential for everything from language learning to following a book chapter from beginning to end.
  • Cognitive flexibility is the capacity to shift between activities, change perspectives, and adapt to different contexts. Research has indicated that this capacity to shift is especially critical for reading achievement.

In the brain, all three of these components are regulated by the frontal lobe. EF begins developing in the first year of life, and it can be impacted by physical changes in the brain and a child’s experiences, including their relationships and home environment. Factors such as poverty, neglect, or abuse can also create toxic stress, which can delay or impair the development of the brain and EF.

Common misconceptions
A common misconception is that EF skills are inherently developed rather than taught. The good news for educators and parents is that because a child’s brain continues to mature and develop into adulthood, EF can be developed and strengthened.

Another misconception is that EF affects only cognitive operations. In reality, it affects social and emotional competencies as well, including the self-regulation of emotion. Learning is a social and interactive process. Children who are able to regulate their emotions and inhibit disruptive behaviors are better able to engage in learning in the classroom. These skills can also help them develop stronger relationships with peers and teachers, which can contribute to a more positive school experience.

Strategies for strengthening EF
Here are a few ways educators can help students improve their EF skills and positively impact their academic learning and social-emotional learning (SEL).

1. Provide supportive role models and environments. Psychologists have found that access to at least one supportive adult in a child’s environment can reduce the effects of toxic stress. Not only can a supportive teacher provide relief from toxic stress, the school itself can provide a safe haven as long as the child feels protected and respected.

2. Create a well-organized environment with clear rules and predictable routines. When students know what to expect they can focus on learning with fewer EF demands.

3. Give students opportunities to make choices, direct their own actions, and gradually become more independent. This not only motivates them by allowing them to choose things that interest them (e.g., books, research projects), but it helps them learn to take more responsibility for their learning.

4. Involve students in planning and setting learning goals for lessons, assignments, and projects.

5. Encourage students to keep track of time. Estimate how long it will take to complete tasks. Use tools and visual aids like schedules and time organizers.

6. To help students strengthen working memory, give directions in multiple formats or organize information into smaller chunks.

7. Use tools such as checklists and step-by-step guides to help students plan, keep track of multiple tasks, and finish their work on time.

8. Supplement instruction with neuroscience-based interventions. Interventions such as the Fast ForWord program include exercises designed to build EF, along with language and reading skills.

9. Teach and assess core SEL competencies along with academic skills. Clearly describe and model the SEL skills and behaviors that students are expected to demonstrate in the classroom and at school. Offer feedback and coach them as needed, and regularly provide positive reinforcement.

10. Adopt a growth mindset. When students believe that intelligence can develop through the process of learning, achievement is significantly accelerated.

When student learning is more efficient and effective, the amount of time needed for re-teaching is reduced, and the need for academic and behavioral interventions is reduced as well.

Research shows that all children can achieve, even those who begin at a disadvantage. By focusing on EF, educators can help students develop good learning habits, pay attention and behave in class, ignore distractions, resist impulsive actions and responses, and think creatively in response to different demands and settings.

About the Author:

As the author of more than 100 journal articles and multiple books, neuroscientist Martha S. Burns, Ph.D., is a leading expert on how children learn. She works as a consultant for the clinical provider division of Scientific Learning.