What Are Executive Functioning Skills and Why Do Students Need Them?

It’s the night before your child has a big paper or project due and panic has set in. Deadlines have already been missed and now your child has a mountain of work to complete. As you hunker down to help, a thought continually buzzes through your head: How did we get here?

The answer may be complicated, but often it comes down to a core set of skills that have increasingly been recognized as crucial for success in school: executive functioning.

Executive functioning is the term used for a range of cognitive skills that help us regulate our behavior and accomplish goals. It includes planning, working memory, impulse control and flexible thinking. Harvard University‘s Center on the Developing Child likens executive function to a personal air traffic control system that helps our brains prioritize tasks and stay focused. At school, strong executive functioning can help children follow directions, solve problems and manage long-term projects.

How Executive Functioning Develops

The acquisition of these skills starts when children are infants but continues through adolescence into the mid-20s, says Dana Charles McCoy, an associate professor of human development and urban education advancement at Harvard. The preschool years — ages 3 to 5 — are a particularly important time for growth.

[READ: How to Choose a Preschool.]

Executive function skills are learned, and parents and teachers can both help model and explicitly teach these competencies to children, McCoy says.

Factors that promote positive child development — like safe, stable home and school environments, trusting relationships with reliable adults, and opportunities for social connection, exercise and open-ended play — also help children develop executive function skills, according to the Harvard center. Adverse experiences, such as toxic stress, can seriously delay or impair this development.

And while there are many ways to teach and strengthen executive function skills, it’s important to remember that they develop over time, McCoy says. Because a brain isn’t fully formed until children reach their mid-20s, it’s just not possible, or developmentally appropriate, to expect a 3-year-old to sit still and learn. “You have to meet children where they are,” she says.

Executive function skills don’t come naturally to all students; children with ADHD, in particular, often struggle to master these skills and may need extra coaching and support. The Child Mind Institute offers a list of recommendations for students who have trouble getting organized or completing simple tasks. These include creating checklists for activities, setting time limits for each step and exploring different learning strategies, such as graphic organizers and mnemonic devices.

How Schools Help Students Develop Executive Functions

Executive function skills are essential for learning, researchers say. As studies have shown a link between executive functioning and academic achievement, schools have found a variety of ways to reinforce these skills in the classroom.

Lawrence School, in northeastern Ohio, is a K-12 private school for students with learning differences. Jason Culp, head of the upper school, says many parents come to the school frustrated with their children’s executive function deficits. “They say, ‘He can’t organize himself; he doesn’t know how to manage time and we don’t know what the problem is.’ ”

Culp says the school explains to parents that strengthening executive functioning requires “direct instruction and explicit support,” just like learning geometry or any other academic subject.

Coaching in executive function skills is built into every subject. The school also offers a separate class in which students are guided to plan out their week, specifying which work needs to be done right away and setting up a step-by-step process for larger projects.

[READ: How Schools Incorporate Social-Emotional Learning]

Gina DiTullio, the principal at Charles Carroll School No. 46, an elementary school in Rochester, New York, also incorporates support for these skills throughout her school. Classrooms have clearly posted schedules for each day, and DiTullio encourages teachers to use different colored folders for separate subjects and graphic organizers to help students learn how to break down an assignment into discrete tasks.

“We give them strategies they can use,” she says. “We don’t give five-step directions.”

She and other school officials have noticed that the pandemic has left some students with gaps in their social skills. At the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year, she says, many students had forgotten what is socially appropriate and how to persevere through a frustrating problem without shutting their computer down or just leaving the classroom.

When children get overwhelmed, sometimes just helping them make a list of what they need to do can calm them down, she says. That also allows them to organize tasks by when they are due and how long they will take, and then create a plan to go forward.

How Parents Can Reinforce Skills at Home

DiTullio often tells parents that having their child clean and organize their bedroom is a great place to start practicing these skills.

But the principal knows that some situations need specific instruction. When her son had trouble handling the beginning of middle school and all the homework assignments he was receiving, she brought him to his locker after school and taught him exactly how to organize his books and assignments to avoid forgetting something.

“We’ve internalized these skills,” DiTullio says. “Our kids have not.”

[READ: How to Instill a ‘Growth Mindset’ in Kids.]

Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child offers a 16-page activity guide with games and projects parents can use to help reinforce executive function skills in children of different ages. For example, simple games like Simon says or red light/green light can teach young children impulse control. For preteens, card games such as hearts or spades can build their working memory, while others, including rummy or poker, can sharpen their quick decision-making ability. Adolescents can learn focus and skill development by playing sports, mastering an instrument or just trying to solve a complex computer game.

McCoy reminds parents that outside of specific activities, children are learning these skills every day, just by watching adults and peers in their life. For instance, providing a predictable environment with routines can help them understand how to regulate their emotions, she says.

Pulling Back Support for Students

Experts also suggest pushing children past their comfort levels occasionally as a good way to stretch their skills. DiTullio says she will specifically add something unexpected into her school day schedule to see how children can handle the change, while she and her staff monitor students’ progress.

Culp says Lawrence School works on a “gradual release of responsibility” for students in 11th and 12th grades. By pulling back support, the school can encourage students to do self-assessments and become aware of how they can support themselves in either college or a workplace, he says.

Executive functioning is “a hard thing to measure,” Culp says. “There are some assessments out there, but we tend to really assess anecdotally because no two students present in the same way.”

More from U.S. News

Is a ‘Lab School’ Right for Your Child?

Should Kids Get Homework?

Executive Functioning and ADHD: What Parents Should Know

What Are Executive Functioning Skills and Why Do Students Need Them? originally appeared on usnews.com

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