Life Skills for Your Child's Success
Developing the Skills That Help Kids Thrive in School: Executive Functions
Key to Excellence in the Classroom
Executive function skills have skyrocketed to the forefront in recent years as research continues to emerge surrounding their role in child development. Although just five studies were commissioned on this topic prior to 1980, studies in the last 20 years have numbered in the thousands. [i]
There’s a good reason these skills have stolen the spotlight: Research has revealed that strong executive function skills help children excel in school.
What exactly are executive function skills? We use them every day to do things like plan our time, focus our attention, hold information in our minds and juggle priorities. [ii] As adults, we often take them for granted, but children must develop these skills, starting at infancy and continuing into their late teens and early twenties.
Children who acquire strong executive function skills become successful students who, for example, consistently complete their assignments on time, remember what they’re taught in class, participate actively in the classroom, filter outside distractions to stay on task, develop stronger relationships with their teachers and maintain self-control, even in the face of temptations.
Conversely, children with weaker executive function skills may struggle in a school setting. [iii]
In this article, you’ll discover the ins and outs of executive functions: what skills fall under the executive function umbrella, how they contribute positively your child’s school success, how to spot a potential executive function challenge in your child—and how to improve their skills in ways your kids will find fun and entertaining.
What Are Executive Function Skills?
Executive functions are skills everyone uses to organize and act on information. [iv] Put simply, these are “high order thinking patterns”[v] that we all use to successfully navigate the world we live in.
Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child describes executive function skills in this way:
“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.”[vi]
While there is no “official” model for executive function skills, much of the available research falls into one of two models.
This first model divides executive function into three broad categories:
The Three Core Executive Functions
- Cognitive Flexibility : Thinking adaptively, including seeing things from another point of view, being able to switch between tasks easily or adapting to a changing environment without distress.
- Working Memory : Holding information in your mind and working with it, such as adding two numbers in your head or remembering a set of instructions for a task.
- Inhibitory Control : Stopping impulsive responses, such as emotional outbursts, and resisting distractions to continue focus on the task at hand.[vii]
The second model offers a more in-depth look at the individual skills that fall under this umbrella:
The 8 Executive Function Skills
- Impulse control – Helps your child think before acting.
- Emotional control – Helps your child keep feelings in check.
- Flexible thinking – Allows your child to adjust to the unexpected.
- Working memory – Helps your child keep key information in mind, such as remembering directions.
- Self-monitoring – Allows your child to evaluate progress.
- Planning and prioritizing – Helps your child decide on a goal and a plan to meet it.
- Task initiation – Helps your child take action and get started.
- Organization – Lets your child keep track of things physically and mentally, including figurative items like one’s train of thought and literal things like homework or a cell phone.[viii]
Additionally, executive functions can be separated into “hot” and “cold.” The way we behave in certain circumstances can be colored by our emotional state. We use “hot” executive functions to regulate our behavior in charged situations and “cold” ones when we’re less emotional.[ix]
Like many of the abilities your children will attain during their development, executive function skills develop over time. In fact, they can be some of the slowest to develop. Although they do begin to develop in infancy, they’re often not fully formed until a child enters late teens or early twenties.[x]
Because these skills are in continual development during school years, difficulties with executive functions are not always easily apparent. However, executive function skills become critical as children progress through school. Those with strong executive function skills will use them to thrive and those with weaker ones may find it difficult to keep up. We’ll investigate why in this next section.
How Do Executive Function Skills Create Stronger Students?
Many of the capabilities that your children call upon in school fall under the umbrella of executive function. For example, your children’s executive function skills will help them:
- Manage time, for example, while taking a quiz or completing a homework assignment.
- Pay attention in the classroom, allowing them to understand the lesson being taught and participate in lessons with their teachers.
- Switch focus between activities in school to keep up with each day’s lessons as the teacher moves through the schedule.
- Plan and organize items as simple as their backpacks all the way to executing group assignments.
- Remember details, such as instructions their teachers give during assignments.
- Avoid saying or doing inappropriate things, helping them develop good classroom behavior, a strong relationship with their teachers and positive social relationships in school.
- Multitask to maintain pace with a busy school environment.[xi]
Children need some of these abilities—such as learning to pay attention in the classroom—as early as Pre-Kindergarten. By high school, your children will rely heavily on all their executive function skills as they organize their time more independently, keep track of assignments and manage long-term projects.[xii]
By creating a strong foundation for these skills early, you can help your children succeed in school from the start. This can get them on the early track to higher and higher levels of school success. It can also ultimately lay the foundation for positive feelings about school and even foster an early love of learning.
How Can I Spot an Executive Function Challenge?
In contrast, children with weaker executive function skills may experience challenges in school, such as:
- Struggling to finish assignments on time.
- Finding it difficult to focus in the classroom.
- Losing homework, notebooks and worksheets.
- Forgetting directions.
- Acting out in the classroom.
Have you noticed any of these struggles in your child? Because research on this topic is still emerging, challenges with executive functions are not always recognized as such. Discover more about what executive function challenges look like—and what you can do to strengthen these skills.
Although there’s no official test for executive function challenges, some parents may request that their children undergo neuropsychological evaluation, a series of tests and interviews to understand a child’s strengths and weaknesses.[xiii] One common test that evaluates working memory asks children to remember a list of numbers and then say them in the reverse order.[xiv]
Whether you’ve had your child tested or whether you believe your child could benefit from stronger executive function skills, the good news is that these skills can be developed in ways that feel fun and easy to your child.
How Can I Help My Children Strengthen Their Executive Function Skills?
Executive function skills are built much like any other skill: through practice.
Role play can offer a venue for developing these skills by offering children a safe environment in which to practice their skills. For example, you could sit down with your child and walk him or her through a scenario that requires flexible thinking, or adapting to consider other people’s viewpoints. Whatever scenario you choose should present your child with a controlled, low-stakes environment in which the tasks placed in front of your child are challenging, but not so difficult as to be completely frustrating. [xv]
Games can also offer children a low-stress environment to develop their skills. For example, Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child suggests the following types of games to strengthen executive function skills:
- Games like Concentration that require children to remember the location of particular cards are powerful for exercising working memory. Additionally, games that require tracking types of playing cards, including Go Fish and Old Maid, also develop memory facility.
- Games that require fast responses and monitoring are also great for challenging attention and inhibition. Examples include Snap and Slapjack.
- Logic and reasoning games, in which rules are applied to solve puzzles, provide working memory and cognitive flexibility challenges. [xvi]
The Center on the Developing Child also notes that as children develop more independence, they may enjoy puzzle and brain teaser books that include mazes, simple word finds and matching games to exercise attention and problem-solving skills, which develop both working memory and cognitive flexibility. [xvii]
A study published by researchers at Penn State and the National University of Tainan, Taiwan offers another vehicle to improve these skills: computer-based games, which have the potential to improve and facilitate students’ critical thinking and higher-level cognition. The study tested a game called “Fire Chief” and concluded that computer-based training can improve higher-order thinking, academic performance, motivation and self-control.[xviii]
Giving Your Children the Tools to Thrive
Now that you understand their role, it’s easy to see how executive function skills can help your child thrive in school—and beyond. These critical skills help your children flourish within their environments as they leverage these skills to adapt to the situations they encounter, remember and use critical information they learn and maintain focus to successfully accomplish tasks.
As a parent, you play a significant role in helping your children develop a range of skills that include executive functions. By developing these skills now, you’ll build a foundation for the future, establishing school as a place your children can thrive and excel and setting the stage to ignite a lifetime love of learning.
GoGoBrain Helps Students Develop the Executive Function Skills they Need to Become Super Students
As you investigate your options for strengthening your child’s executive function skills, put GoGoBrain on your list.
GoGoBrain is an interactive online learning platform that strengthens seven critical meta-cognitive skills—including executive function skills—to create Super Students from Pre-K to 5th grade. GoGoBrain will help your children develop skills in listening, following directions, self-control, focus, working memory and visual-spatial reasoning.
To discover how GoGoBrain can help your children become Super Students who thrive in the classroom and beyond, visit http://GoGoBrain.com.
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