Demystifying the Executive Functions and Their Effects on Students
By Loren Deutsch
Today in education, the term executive function is being used interchangeably to refer to everything from organization and time management to emotional regulation and memory.
Yet, how many people really understand the term and all it includes? Does it include organizational skills and emotions? Does it include attention and short-term memory?
Does it include decision-making and problem solving? If you are a parent with a child who has executive functioning challenges, or a teacher with a student or several students with executive functioning difficulties, then you know the answer is “yes” to all of the above and sometimes, much more.
The executive functions refer to a set of mental processes that include planning, organizing, prioritizing, paying attention and regulating affect. Along with these functions are many other mental processes as well as the ability to regulate one’s behavior.
To that end, one’s emotional response to myriad tasks required in school, at home, during extra-curricular activities, and in relationships with other people are highly relevant to executive functioning. In fact, one’s ability to manage all the feelings that are associated with all the mental processes required in a day encompasses much of what people need to “function.”
According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, executive functioning:
- Is conscious, purposeful and thoughtful
- Involves activating, orchestrating, monitoring, evaluating and adapting different strategies to accomplish different tasks
- Includes an understanding of how people tap their knowledge and skills and how they stay motivated to accomplish their goals
- Requires the ability to analyze situations, plan and take action, focus and maintain attention and adjust actions as needed to get the job done.
Why we should care:
One of the reasons that these buzz words are so prevalent is that we know much more about the brain and how it processes and stores information. This has implications for how we teach, how we learn, and how we intervene when learning is challenging. One example of how the executive functions involve teaching and learning, concerns memory.
Students are bombarded with new information everyday, and they need a way to hold on to that new information in order to learn. Memorizing or briefly storing new information is typically a first-step toward learning. However, when a student memorizes information that is new or not well understood, such as a math formula or definition of a word, it is quite possible that he will forget the information during the course of the day.
While memorizing is an important first step to learning, it is simply that, a first step. It allows us to briefly store small pieces of information in our short-term memory (also referred to as working memory) during the day. This is why telephone numbers, math problems, tasks, names, etc. are available for us to use in planning, sorting, and executing.
However, experience and brain research has taught us that relying on information stored in a space intended for short-term use is not a viable way to progress through school. Too many competing variables will intervene and newly memorized information will become less accessible as time passes.
Since working memory is highly relevant to learning, teachers and students alike can benefit from understanding the process and significance of consolidating information from working memory into long-term memory. Starting with homework assignments that allow students to make connections between new information and old can provide a start to memory consolidation.
Explaining the process to students, within the context of an assignment, furthers their understanding for information and how to store it. This method teaches students about executive functions and how to be mindful in their use.
Loren Academic Services does free, one-hour in-service days for your child’s school or homeschool group.