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The Link between Executive Function and Social and Emotional Learning—The Basics

The Link between Executive Function and Social and Emotional Learning—The Basics

There are a lot of buzzwords floating around in education. Here are two that you may be hearing about a lot more lately: executive function and social and emotional learning. But, what do they mean, and how are they connected?

Executive function (EF) is defined by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University as:

[EF] skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is defined by Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), the standard bearer for SEL, as:

[SEL] is an integral part of education and human development. SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.  (Update announced by CASEL October 2020) 

I like to think of things this way: while we all have the power of choice, good executive function allows us to take in enough information to have a basis for our choice, see that there are options to that choice, and take enough time to make the best decision. Social and emotional learning allows us to make a choice better by integrating the needs of others and the environmental norms and expectations into the context of the decision—function combined with awareness.

Function combined with awareness is not a new pairing for educators. When children had difficulty reading 30 years ago, it was not uncommon, sadly, to hear a teacher say, “Try harder.” We now understand that reading disabilities are not improved by the student showing increased motivation BUT by the teacher understanding the cognitive function that is the barrier and becoming aware that different teaching skills are needed. Function combined with awareness leads to a more successful and lasting intervention. This is equally true with the acquisition of behavior skills.

Let’s take this thought one step further and combine function (EF) and awareness (SEL) with connection.

Children need connection. A research paper entitled Young Children Develop in an Environment of Relationships from the Center of the Developing Child out of Harvard University has this to say:

Stated simply, relationships are the “active ingredients” of the environment’s influence on healthy human development. They incorporate the qualities that best promote competence and well-being – individualized responsiveness, mutual action-and-interaction, and an emotional connection to another human being.

Our ability to remain connected and to understand behavior is essential. I have found that it is beneficial, when faced with a behavior that does not meet expectation, to start with an assumption of positive intention or the idea that children want to be successful and something is in the way of their success. What I mean by this, in the context of education, is that we can often change our lens and, therefore, our response if we assume when children are not meeting our expectations actually want to, this keeps our connection to the child intact while we work to understand the forces influencing the current behavior.  

If we operate with this understanding, we must then ask ourselves when children are not able to do this, what is getting in the way of their ability to meet the norms and expectations around them? In order to meet these norms—whether it is raising their hands in class, engaging in prosocial cooperative play on the playground, or following parental directions—their ability to succeed is based on a capacity to understand what is being required and regulate their behavior to meet that requirement. This is where EF and SEL are intimately tied together. When children’s executive function is working smoothly and expectations are developmentally appropriate, they develop a flexibility of thinking that supports follow-through or the acquisition of the skill. When EF is delayed or impaired, children are more likely to fail at, or miss, our message. Additionally, they are then more likely to function out of their fight-or-flight response because the inability to meet the expectation of someone you want to please increases stress, leading to even less function in the prefrontal cortex and a sense of disconnection.

By identifying delays in EF and using effective interventions to improve it, we create a stronger foundation for the successful acquisition of SEL skills, thus leading to a stronger sense of self-management, connection, and belonging. What does this look like more concretely, using the example of forging friendships?

As you can see in the preceding table, SEL is dependent upon EF, and in order to have a child feel whole, competent, and connected, SEL and EF need to function together, with EF as the foundation. Building skills in EF and SEL improve a child’s chance at success in relationships and connection. As educators, we know that relationships are everything.

Interested in learning more about executive function and social and emotional learning? Check out this blog post on social and emotional learning in practice.

This post was originaly published December 2019 and has been updated.

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Jen Perry

Jen Perry currently serves as the Director, Whole Learning and SEL at Edmentum. Jen joined Edmentum as the Learning Designer for Social-Emotional Learning after 30+ years of work with youth in educational and community settings. As a teacher, administrator, and trainer, her passion has been to help educators develop an understanding of the importance of social and emotional learning and build trauma-informed responses and systems. This work has included supporting youth, administrators, and schools in understanding behavior and implementing transformational change through strength-based approaches.