Executive functioning is critical to students’ success, and schools play a key role in helping students develop those skills, like this brain.

Cultivating a school culture that promotes executive functioning


Executive functioning is critical to students’ success, and schools play a key role in helping students develop those skills

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools across the country struggle to move their brick-and-mortar classrooms to remote online learning environments. While empowering students to take the lead in their education is the vision and mission of school districts, the abrupt move to distance learning has put a heavy burden of responsibility on our students.

“What is being asked of our children today in terms of executive functioning is way more complicated than it used to be, and their brains are not more ready,” said Courtney Wittner, M.Ed., director at Hayutin & Associates, during a recent edLeader Panel.

Wittner, along with Renaud Boisjoly, CEO of Studyo, identified and provided valuable strategies for supporting students as they navigate these unprecedented and challenging times with executive functioning skills.

Related content: 10 tips to boost executive function

Executive function overview

Executive functions, or EFs, are considered “higher-order” brain functions that can initiate, break down, and follow through on multi-step tasks. Executive function skills help our brains prioritize tasks, filter distractions, and control impulses.

The three core EFs are inhibitory control, such as self-control, discipline, and attention control; working memory, which includes mentally relating one idea or fact to another and reordering the sequence of items; and cognitive flexibility, or thinking outside the box. A 2007 study found that executive functions are more critical for school readiness than IQ or entry-level reading or math.

Executive function enablers and deficits

Three main factors that impact the likelihood of students developing executive function skills at school are positive relationships with adults, experiences that foster social connections, and safe, nurturing environments that promote creativity, exploration, and exercise.

If nurtured in young children, the executive functions will allow students to act in a goal-directed manner. Students with low executive functioning are considered lazy, unmotivated, and apathetic. Teachers and adults can support all students, including students with low executive functioning, by modeling and providing explicit instruction on strategies and skills such as calendar and time management, environmental organization, self-advocacy, goal-directed behavior, attentiveness, motivation task management, processing speed, informational recall and memory, and study skills.

Fostering a culture that promotes executive functioning

Supporting and developing critical executive function skills involves the entire school community. Steps to encourage a school culture that promotes executive functioning includes analyzing current systems, assessing physical or social learning environments, and providing teacher training and executive function professional development opportunities.

It is essential for educators to teach executive function skills during the school day and model planning and study skills so students can generalize these skills and take agency and ownership of these skills themselves.

As students enter upper elementary and middle school, the focus on executive function strategies declines, so students show up to high school and don’t know how to take notes or study.

The presenters recommend teaching executive function skills and strategies at an early age as this can decrease anxiety and result in overall competence as a learner that will ensure success in college and beyond.

About the presenter

Courtney Wittner, M.Ed., is a director at Hayutin & Associates, an educational services company in Santa Monica, California, where she manages a caseload of 75 students and provides clinical supervision to tutors and educational therapists. In this role, she provides training on best practices in executive functioning to students, teachers, and tutors.

About the host

Renaud Boisjoly is the CEO of Studyo. With over 25 years of experience in supporting teachers and schools in building technology plans based on educational goals, both during his 19 years as part of Apple Canada’s Education team, and later as part of the Eastern Townships School Board, he became pivotal in the planning and redefinition of a few of the largest one-to-one deployments in Eastern Canada. Renaud now focuses on supporting the development of organizational skills through Studyo, a student project management and planning platform he founded in 2013. He is always focused on the skills students desperately need to succeed in today’s world, and always places education before technology.

Join the community

The Brain and Learning is a free professional learning community on edWeb.net where educators, scientists, and academics can collaborate on the science behind the brain and learning to improve student achievement.

This edWeb broadcast was sponsored by Studyo. The recording of the edLeader Panel can be viewed by anyone here.

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