The Impact of Executive Functioning

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Bethany sat in class, nervously fidgeting with her pencil and trying to avoid the teacher’s gaze. Mr. Johns repeated his question: “Who wants to read their answer from Question 3 on the homework?” Bethany felt herself sinking lower into her chair. She knew she was supposed to complete the worksheet last night. She’d even brought it home–a triumph, since she usually ended up forgetting it at school or losing it after tucking it away in a textbook.

But she got distracted with other work, then a few YouTube videos, then some aimless web surfing. And then, suddenly, it was time for bed. She had decided she would work on the questions the next morning. But, when the morning came, she had struggled with getting her hair just right and forgotten. And now, here she sat, questions undone and prayers sent to the classroom gods that she wouldn’t get called on. 

Does any of that sound familiar? If so, then it’s possible that your student lacks the set of skills known collectively as executive functioning.

What is Executive Functioning?

Executive functioning, in general, is composed of three main areas: working memory, flexible thinking, and self control. Working memory involves remembering information so that it can be used later. One example of this would be a student remembering the main idea of a paragraph so she or he can answer questions about it. Flexible thinking involves problem solving or being able to approach a problem from multiple angles. Self control is the skill to resist distractions and temptations and to stay focused on a task.

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Not Lazy, But Lacking

Over the past several years, more emphasis has been placed on executive functioning skills than ever before. Where some students would previously have been labeled as “lazy” or “unintelligent,” research now shows that the real culprit is a lack of executive function. Those skills begin developing at an early age and continue developing all the way into a person’s early 20’s.

Without well-developed executive skills, a student has difficulty setting goals, regulating emotions, understanding others’ point of view, and sticking with tasks–all vital skills of successful adults. And while some people may possess one or more of these executive functioning abilities naturally, everyone can improve and sharpen their skills with training and practice.

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What Can We Do?

Here at Huntington, we help engender those important skills as we work with our students, making them accountable while helping them plan out tasks, use critical thinking skills, and complete assignments in a timely fashion. But there are also several helpful strategies parents can use at homework time and beyond. 

  • Look for resources. Huntington offers help for organizational skills that are proven to work, and many websites, such as Understood.org, give great suggestions.
  • Use timers for tasks, both ones involving homework and ones involving household chores.
  • Write things down–have goals for tasks readily visible.
  • Offer rewards for tasks successfully carried out.
  • Organize frequent, planned breaks (3-10 minutes) for your student. Write out their work schedule so that it can be easily seen and understood.
  • With younger learners, many games can be used to teach executive functioning skills in a non-academic format.
  • Emphasize a focus on completion of the task and not on the grindstone. Get your student to begin to see tasks as a means to an end.
  • Give pep talks–a word of encouragement can go a long way toward getting a student to repeat desirable behavior.
  • Show compassion–struggling with executive functioning can be daunting. Try to understand the difficulties your student is facing, and let them know that you’re there with them to help them succeed.

Executive functioning is sometimes known as the “CEO of the brain.” For many students, a lack of executive functioning skills is a sizable obstacle to success. By being aware of the necessity of these skills and by being willing to guide students through the process, we are ensuring that the next generation of lifelong learners will be well equipped for long-term success.

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