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Executive Function: What Is It, Why Does It Matter, and How Can You Support Building This Skill?

Executive Function: What Is It, Why Does It Matter, and How Can You Support Building This Skill?

When you think about a whole-learner model, the combination of academics and social-emotional learning likely comes to mind first, as it encompasses two key elements that maximize learner success. But, the necessary ingredients for this recipe don’t stop there. At the foundation of ALL learning is something known as executive function, and it is essential for future success. While this concept is not quite as well known, its presence (or lack thereof) is impacting student learning every day.

What is executive function?

Executive function (EF) skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and manage multiple tasks successfully. In simpler terms, executive function skills are the air traffic control system of the brain. They help us filter distraction, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.

Executive function consists of three distinct, but related, dimensions, including:

  • Cognitive Flexibility or Flexible Thinking: This is the ability to sustain or shift attention in response to different demands, priorities, and perspectives.
  • Inhibitory Control or Impulse Control: This is the ability to set priorities, resist impulsive actions, and pause and think before acting in order to focus and complete important tasks.
  • Working Memory: This is the ability to keep information in mind, to manipulate it, and to use it to successfully navigate your own environment.

Why does it matter?

To put it simply—research proves that it matters: attend to students’ executive functioning needs, and improved academic outcomes will follow. Acquiring EF skills is a fundamental part of healthy human development, learning, and problem-solving. While development continues throughout adolescence and early adulthood, it begins shortly after birth, and the most dramatic growth is seen in the earliest years of learning and skill development.

The National Center for Education Research (NCER) published its own report on the implications for education, stating that EF measured in childhood predicts a wide range of important outcomes, including:

  • Readiness for school and a successful transition to kindergarten
  • School performance and social competence in adolescence2
  • Better physical health
  • Higher socioeconomic status
  • Fewer drug-related problems and criminal convictions in adulthood

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University notes that research on the developing brain shows us that early childhood experiences build the foundation for a skilled workforce, a responsible community, and a thriving economy. These required executive function skills are essential for school achievement, for the preparation and adaptability of our future workforce, and for avoidance of a wide range of population health problems.

How can you spot students who need additional support?

Today’s learners need practice to build these skills and compassion and consideration from educators about the factors that impact executive function. These can include differences in brain development, genes and heredity, some learning disabilities, and slower processing speed. No matter the circumstances, it’s common for many learners to have trouble building EF skills, but that doesn’t mean they can’t! While students do not simply grow out of EF struggles, with specific support, mastery is achievable.

Start by knowing the signs of what to look for. Students who struggle with EF might demonstrate these behaviors:

  • Being unable to see others’ perspectives
  • Having trouble calming big emotions
  • Being challenged by switching between rules or expectations
  • Forgetting class routines
  • Struggling to remember information or sequences
  • Being unable to sit still or pay attention well
  • Demonstrating difficulty waiting their turn, instead calling out answers

The good news, according to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, is: “Children aren’t born with these skills—they are born with the potential to develop them.”

Interested in learning how Edmentum can help? Exact Path, our K–12 diagnostic-driven, direct instruction program, is expanding to address executive function through assessment and aligned activities designed to support academic and social-emotional success for your K–2 learners. Take a closer look!

madison.michell's picture
Madison Michell

Madison Michell has been a member of the Edmentum team since 2014 and currently serves as a Marketing Manager. As a former Kindergarten and 3rd grade teacher during her time as a Teach For America corps member, she believes education truly has the power to transform lives. She is passionate about connecting educators with online programs, best practices, and research that improve teaching and learning for today's students.