What is executive function and how can teachers help students build it?
What Does Executive Function Look Like?
When I taught English to middle school students, I learned what executive function looked like firsthand.
Sasha was the model student. She followed instructions after hearing them once. She concentrated on her work without being distracted by the girls giggling next to her or the occasional chatter leaking in from the hall. I could always count on her to remember every step of a class activity or homework assignment. When chaos reigned in the classroom and I, a young teacher, questioned my own abilities, Sasha was my rock.
Brendan, on the other hand—well, he was what you might call easily distracted. Somehow, he didn’t get started on a class assignment until 5 minutes after everyone else was settled in, and then he would lean over to a neighbor to ask what to do. In group discussions, he would steer the conversion off-topic or be unable to help himself from pulling up a funny video on his phone. He made teaching eventful, to say the least.
Teachers Can Help Build Executive Function
If you are a teacher, I’m sure you’ve also had versions of Sasha and Brendan in your classes. These aren’t their real names, of course, but their behavioral differences are plenty real—and common. It’s not that Sasha was inherently a good student, and Brendan was a bad one. They just had different levels of executive function.
There’s a lot at stake when it comes to executive function skills. Executive function determines a student’s academic achievement throughout their time in school, and it even affects success in the workplace and life more generally. But some students, like Brendan, need extra support to reach their full executive function potential.
Fortunately, executive function is a skill set that can be developed, and educators can do a lot to help students along the way! Keep reading to learn more about executive function and how to help students strengthen their capacity for it at every grade level and age.
What Is Executive Function?
Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child defines executive function and self-regulation skills as “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.”
We know now that the development of these skills is not guaranteed and that children with executive function problems do not necessarily outgrow them. Children who struggle to plan and organize their work in early elementary may become adolescents who fall behind in homework, have difficulty completing projects, and struggle to progress academically.
In particular, youth from economically disadvantaged groups tend to suffer from under-development of these skills, which puts them behind even before entering elementary school. Severe under-development may also lead to behavioral problems and, in some cases, failure in school, as many teachers are not trained to recognize or treat these problems effectively. These unfortunate facts reinforce the achievement gap that already exists for at-risk groups in underserved communities, since those with behavioral challenges are often kept out of classroom work and, in turn, may have trouble paying attention when in class.
How to Build Executive Function
What can educators do? Here are some classroom strategies to help students develop executive function so that they can succeed both in and out of the classroom.
Elementary School Grades K-5 (Ages 5-11)
Middle School Grades 6-8 (Ages 11-14)
High School Grades 9-12 (Ages 14-18)
Learn more in the on-demand webinar, "The Science of Learning: How the Brain Learns Best."
Amy is passionate about researching and writing about urgent topics in education to help educators stay up-to-date on the best practices. As a former teacher of English writing, EFL, and ESL, she is dedicated to supporting educators and students.Explore more related to this author