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Executive Functioning and Student Success

There has been much talk lately about the importance of executive functioning skills and their impact in student success. For years, explicit instruction or coaching in these skills has been reserved for those who present a need for it, but everyone needs it. In this discussion, ESM Prep Academic Mentors Mary Bassey and Kevin Quail II begin the conversation around the importance of executive functioning skills and skill building for all.

Today is the day! Three weeks of work on your argumentative essay has led to this moment when you finally turn it in. But there was more to getting this essay done than simply writing it: you brainstormed topics and ultimately selected one that you felt was the easiest to execute; you created an outline with topic sentences that captured your position and provided counterarguments; and you produced a rough draft and revised it several times until it led to a final draft that you can be proud of. Furthermore, you completed these tasks while completing other assignments and projects, balancing your academic life and your social one. Phew, talk about a juggling act! Well, the foundation of this success is all due to what we call executive functioning.

What is executive functioning?

Executive function refers to a collection of cognitive processes that allow one to achieve goal-oriented actions. They are integral to one’s personal progress both inside and outside of the classroom. The foundation of executive functioning is the skills required to synthesize knowledge from recall to comprehension to analysis to understanding. Because these processes mostly involve the frontal lobe of our cerebral cortex—known as the executive center—these processes are referred to as executive functioning skills.

Executive functioning skills are critical because they are used to organize human behavior over time and override impulses or immediate demands for long-term goals. These skills help us plan and organize tasks, concentrate, and persist to completion. They enable emotional regulation and thought-monitoring to augment efficiency and effectiveness. A current list of executive skills identified and targeted, adapted from Dawson and Guare (2010), includes but is not limited to:

  1. Planning: The process or methodology by which one creates a roadmap or guide to reach a goal or to complete a task.
  2. Organization: The process or methodology by which one designs and maintains systems to keep track of information and materials.
  3. Metacognition: The process or methodology by which one stands back and objectively reviews one’s own thought-process or perspective.
  4. Empathy: The process or methodology by which one understands others’ perspectives in an effort to sense and relate to their feelings and, with the will to respond appropriately, works collaboratively toward a common objective.
  5. Concentration (i.e. Sustained Attention): The process or methodology by which one attends consistently to a scene or task despite distraction, fatigue, or boredom.
  6. Efficiency (i.e. Time-Management): The process or methodology by which one estimates how much time one has and best allocate it in order to meet deadlines.
  7. Goal-Setting: The process or methodology by which one identifies a desired outcome and generates criteria to evaluate its success or failure.
  8. Self-Inhibition (i.e. Impulse Regulation): The process or methodology by which one thinks and plans their actions before acting on a stimulus or impulse.
  9. Self-Regulation: The process or methodology by which one manages their emotions in order to achieve goals, complete tasks, or direct behavior.
  10. Decision-Making: The process or methodology by which one begins and commits to a task or outcome, adhering to a timeline.
  11. Adaptability (i.e. Flexibility): The process or methodology by which one revises a plan in the face of barriers, setbacks, new data, or errors.
  12. Persistence: The process or methodology by which one follows through and completes tasks despite setbacks or competing interests.

How do we build these skills for school and life success?

Teachers often foster the development of executive functioning skills in the classroom. For example, instead of just grading and collecting the final draft of a paper, a teacher may set a due date for every single step of the writing process—from the prewriting process all the way to the final product—in order to encourage students to break a big task into smaller, more manageable steps. A teacher may also make it their mission to check a student’s planner everyday to ensure that all homework assignments and their due dates are written down.

While often helpful, these and similar examples alone are insufficient to ensure a holistic development of executive functioning skills for each student, and more must be done. Nonetheless, the firmest foundation for academic success is radical honesty from all parties as appropriate program development can only take place when we make learning decisions using valid data to generate tried-and-true interventions to the real barrier(s) to natural skill development, beginning and ending with a critical question: what are our goals?