Executive function is a broad term used to describe the skills needed to set and accomplish goals. But what is it, really? Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child compares executive functioning to an air traffic controller: “Much like an air traffic control system at an airport helps planes on different runways land and take off safely, executive function skills help our brain prioritize tasks, filter distractions, and control impulses.”
There is a clear link between these skills and students’ academic success, but the benefits of these skills can also be seen in their social-emotional well-being. Gifted education environments must foster executive function skills, starting at a young age. Research on brain development shows considerable growth in executive function in children between the ages of three and five, with another surge occurring during adolescence (Harvard University, 2021). Developing these skills is a never-ending process, as we continue to learn new ways to regulate our behaviors and reach our goals throughout our lives.
Fostering the development of executive function skills
As a school counselor, I promote executive function skills through interactive games and meaningful discussions. At the beginning of the school year, Second Step classes with kindergarten and first-grade students focus on essential skills for learning, and we start by talking about what it looks like and feels like to be distracted during class. Students work together to create a list of strategies they can use when it becomes challenging to pay attention — quick techniques such as taking a deep breath or asking for a quick brain break to get themselves back on track.
It may take years for children to learn to identify for themselves when they are feeling distracted, but teachers and parents can use reminders and encourage self-reflection to help scaffold the development of this important executive function skill.
Around fourth or fifth grade, gifted students generally can leverage their advanced vocabulary and abstract thinking capabilities to begin learning about their own brains in a more specific way, paying attention to metacognitive dynamics. (As a bonus, gifted children often have a particular affinity for psychology, as their own brains have often been the subject of much attention and they’d really like to know what is going on in there!) This approach teaches executive function skills more directly as students prepare for their upcoming transition to middle school.
An organic starting place would be the beginning of the school year when students can spend time reflecting on their organizational skills, and the obstacles that can get in the way of keeping an orderly binder and locker, as well as what the consequences are for not doing so — trouble finding homework assignments to turn in, for example, or being late for class because they needed to search for something. As we all no doubt know, organizational skills can take years and years to master; it takes practice like any other skill.
Students are often very frank about their struggles with organization — and since many gifted children have perfectionistic tendencies — organization can be a topic about which they may be surprisingly passionate. Happily, this is one area in which they are often eager to exchange ideas or techniques they have found helpful: “this is how I organize my notes before tests,” or “this binder I found has built-in tabs,” or “I use this very specific planner,” et cetera.
In the classroom
Metacognitive curricula can also delve into the brain processes responsible for remembering information at this stage. For example, students can apply these understandings into real-life practice by using mnemonic devices to encode data into their long-term memory. While executive function skills can sometimes be taught through direct instruction, there are plenty of other ways to bolster these skills across age levels, including:
Encouraging imaginative play
When children engage in imaginative play, they often create complex worlds with multiple characters with various personalities. Remembering all the moving parts of a complex narrative puts their working memory to the test and engages them cognitively.
Using Project-Based Learning (PBL)
Project-based classes prioritize hands-on learning, which encourages students to be directly involved in the planning and executing of a long-term project that may take a week, month, or whole year to complete. PBL teaches time management, among other executive function skills, like breaking an enormous task into smaller pieces and setting milestone goals along the way to completing a project. Here’s a helpful infographic for developing PBL lesson plans or planning your next family project or adventure.
When children follow a routine at school and home, they reduce the cognitive load of predicting what will happen next, which helps them focus on the here and now. Habits also create automatic sequences of behavior that allow us to preserve our brainpower for more important things. Visual schedules can help young children strengthen their concept of time, for example; as parents no doubt know, “just five minutes” can feel like an eternity or like a nanosecond, depending on the context.
Modeling planning and flexibility
Children look to the adults in their lives as role models. When children see their parents and teachers use checklists and schedules, they can see the utility of these planning tools. Often, we need to explicitly articulate why they are essential. Gifted children are so used to being able to remember copious information that they think they will never need “those planning things adults use.” A new frame for this effort might help: “if I outsource the time of my dentist appointment to this paper calendar, I get to use my brain for more interesting things, like reading a book — or talking to you!” Similarly, children take notice of the way grownups react when things do not go as planned. Gifted children, especially, may be highly attuned to the emotional temperature of their environment, so try (!) to keep your own emotions in check and solve the problem rather than dwelling on the mistake (easier said than done, of course).
Assisting with organizational skills
Work with children to create an organizational system that works best for their personal needs — again, you can frame this activity attractively, such as an opportunity for self-expression or inventing a “custom-made” solution. This may be as simple as different-colored folders or labeled binder dividers for each class. Over time, students will develop their own organization system and require fewer reminders from mom and dad (one hopes, anyway). Depending on the homework load at school, students may even notice an immediate difference in their stress levels once they don’t have to dig through a backpack to find a completed homework assignment to turn in. Students lucky enough to have subject-specialist teachers at young ages can implement these practices early since increased complexity in their daily schedule clearly and quickly demonstrates the importance of such habits.
Executive Function and Social-Emotional Development
Executive function encompasses a wide range of skills that look very different for every student, and the development of these skills is not always linear. One student may have a strong working memory that is advantageous for solving complicated math problems, while another student may have innate organizational skills. There is a clear link between these skills and students’ academic success, but what is the relationship between executive function and social-emotional development?
In Metacognitive Lab, my fourth and fifth-grade students learn about the role of the prefrontal cortex in the brain. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for all things related to executive functioning. We cannot make decisions, set goals, or pay attention without it. Dr. Dan Siegel, the author of The Whole-Brain Child, developed the hand model of the brain (see diagram below) to help children understand what happens when emotions in the limbic system override the prefrontal cortex. He calls this “flipping our lid,” though you may also be familiar with this phenomenon as “a meltdown” or simply “being a teenager.”
When we use our prefrontal cortex to check in with our emotions and our body’s responses to the world around us, we can employ self-regulation strategies. Learning and practicing these skills can help address anxiety. In particular, self-regulation strategies are a big part of Second Step and Metacognitive Lab because they help students feel calm and ready to learn. Students who have more strategies in their “toolboxes” also benefit from more positive social relationships with peers.
REFERENCES and resources
Harvard University Center on the Developing Child. (2021). What is executive function? And how does it relate to child development?
Siegel, D. J., & Payne Bryson, T. (2011). The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind. New York: Bantam Books.
Committee for Children blog post on self-regulation and executive function skills.
The Checklist Manifesto: How to get things right by Atul Gawande
Sophia Coates is a Guidance Counselor at The Grayson School and believes it is most important that her students have space and skills to advocate for their needs, regardless of age or grade level. She promotes an environment in her classes where her students feel comfortable seeking help and asking for the resources they need to succeed.