Math. Social studies. Science. There’s no shortage of important topics the U.S. education system imparts on our youth. And yet, there is a set of skills that’s not given enough attention in the classroom: Executive functioning.
Executive functioning is the management system of the brain — it refers to how well students pay attention, organize and prioritize, stay focused on tasks through completion, regulate their emotions, and keep track of the things they are doing. While executive functioning is starting to gain some deserved attention in the classroom, parents can have a huge impact on the growth of these skills for their children.
In this piece, we’ll look at why executive functioning has been historically overlooked in our education system and how parents can help their children learn these skills.
How did we get here? Why executive functioning is overlooked
The U.S. public education system has always been focused on results. Results in the form of grades, standardized test scores, and student performance. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, which President George W. Bush signed into law in 2001, schools that did not consistently meet federal standards for proficiencies could face funding cuts. The Every Student Succeeds Act, ushered in by President Obama, largely transferred the accountability of these assessments from the federal to the state level.
Under both laws, however, the incentive for schools is to ensure students are meeting state or federal proficiency standards. That’s why many curriculums — understandably so — have been geared toward achieving certain benchmarks for each grade level.
That works to some degree for certain subjects. There are many subjects where knowledge and competency can be tested and measured. But a student’s executive functioning is much harder to determine: how can you say whether a student is able to prioritize projects or budget their time at a satisfactory level? How do you track how they’ve improved their emotional regulation? Or their time budgeting capabilities or ability to pay attention?
Executive functioning has not been given the commitment of resources as other subjects in our education system. That’s due to extensive, grade-level federal and state assessments, often which are tied to funding. But that’s been exacerbated because executive functioning is also much more difficult for schools to evaluate and measure.
Beyond testing and assessment, there’s an additional, simpler reason that explains why executive functioning hasn’t been a priority: lack of awareness. The skills have only in recent years become labeled under the umbrella of “executive functioning.” For decades, these skills did not have a name in the classroom. And if you don’t have a label for a group of skills, it’s hard to begin to address student shortcomings in a structured, standardized way.
Why do some children lack executive functioning skills?
If you were asked what you did this morning, you wouldn’t describe how you brushed your teeth, ate breakfast, and left the house on time. Those are things that you do without thinking; things that are a given.
And yet, many children are unable to get out the door on time. They could be easily distracted when they eat breakfast, or forget to brush their teeth, or be late leaving for school.
That’s due to prefrontal lobe development, key to executive decision making, which has the ability to grow until a person is 25 years of age. Simply put, a child’s brain is not fully developed in this area. The best way to accelerate that development and facilitate positive executive functioning is to provide consistency. If your child is a visual learner, you may want to write out their morning schedule which they can reference on a daily basis to help them remember tasks and their timing, for example.
An additional way to build strong habits is to leverage positive reinforcement. It may be tempting to do certain tasks for a child, such as throwing out their trash or clearing their dishes. Instead, look for the ways that truly motivate your child — perhaps it is a small monetary reward or time to play a video game. Or simply provide positive verbal praise and affirmations. Provide these types of rewards for when they complete these tasks; that way the task will become a habit. Are there going to be times when you are too exhausted and not willing to fight a battle with your child? Of course. Building these habits may never be perfect, but keep the big picture in perspective.
What can parents do about improving these skills?
I can already hear you saying: I struggle with building routines on my own and holding myself accountable, how am I going to teach my children these skills? Trust me, I can absolutely relate!
First off — and this is key — give yourself some grace! Know that you will not adhere precisely to the routine every day. But do try to stay consistent: If a child has a chore to take out the trash every Tuesday at 7:30 a.m., you may want to create a visual calendar with their name next to it. Then provide positive reinforcement — through whatever motivates them — until that chore becomes a habit. If you struggle with staying organized and completing tasks, try to build routines and reminders that will keep you consistent as well.
Parents should also collaborate with their child’s teachers about issues that they see at home, get input on how the student acts in the classroom, and develop an action plan based on these insights.
Lastly, parents can turn to online resources like Understood.org, which has a plethora of helpful advice on how to build healthy habits and cultivate executive functioning skills. In addition, tap your network: you’d be surprised how many other fellow parents might be dealing with similar issues with their children — and may have helpful tips, too.
Harnessing and emphasizing student strengths
Just as it’s important to build a routine for your child, that doesn’t mean you should remove their passions which seem less relevant to improving their executive functioning. If your child loves playing sports, that’s great — but build that play time into a structure!
Many parents of ADHD children know they may struggle with executive functioning. And their children also have many positive traits: their creativity, their spontaneity, and their resilience. Use these traits to help build executive functioning: Let children create their own morning schedule. Encourage them to be resilient even when they have difficulty following their routines. Let them be spontaneous and leave them free time, as long as it has parameters and doesn’t impact other routines.
You don’t want to limit your child’s passions, but fit them into a larger structure so they can build these important skills. All the while, make sure to positively reinforce behaviors that should be encouraged.
Up to 90 percent of students diagnosed with ADHD also struggle with executive functioning and it can impact them in some capacity through their academic and professional careers. In the Covid era, there’s never been a better time for parents and schools to prioritize executive functioning skills.
After all, while a child may not use long division much past high school, they will absolutely rely on their executive functioning skills every day of their life.