What are Executive Function Skills?
For how many of these questions can you give the answer, “YES?”
- Are you able to set goals and achieve them?
- Can you plan a vacation and organize all of the necessary details to make sure the trip runs smoothly?
- If you are angry, can you stop and think before you “explode?”
- Are you able to get to work, appointments, or various functions on time?
- Can you listen during a work meeting even though it might be a bit boring?
- Are you able to manage changes that come into your day and handle them with ease and find a solution if needed?
- Can you reflect on mistakes and make a plan for the future with a plan of not “repeating” the same mistake?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are using your executive function skills.
The literature in neuroscience tells us that executive skills are required for humans to execute or perform tasks. [i] These skills take place in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Goldberg describes the prefrontal cortex as the brain’s ” chief executive officer” that helps us achieve goals and lifelong dreams. [ii] One of the jobs parents have is to foster independence in their children with the hope that by adolescence they can function with little adult help. They may need help with certain things, but they should be able to plan and organize their day, get ready for school, be on time, organize their materials, and complete homework. The goals that teachers may have (depending on the grade) will be to teach students how to put their belongings away, get the materials they need, maintain focus and demonstrate they are ready to learn. However, when one of these skills is missing it makes learning difficult. Interestingly enough, most children with dyslexia or any of the co-existing disorders of dyslexia, frequently have deficits in executive function skills. This is one reason why learning can be so challenging.
Peg Dawson and Richard Guare have devised a model around 11 sub-skills of executive function. Their model focuses on two premises:
1) We all have an array of strengths and weaknesses
2) Identify weaknesses in each individual and implement an intervention based on these weaknesses as well as build on strengths.
11 Sub-Skills of Executive Function
Below will give a brief explanation of each executive function skill.
- Response inhibition– to think before you act
- Working Memory– to hold information in memory while completing a complex task or draw on past learning and apply it to the current situation
- Emotional Control– the ability to manage emotions (not fly off the handle!)
- Sustained Attention– to pay attention to something despite fatigue or boredom
- Task Initiation– to begin a project without procrastination and in a timely fashion
- Planning and Prioritization-to create a plan to reach a goal and make decisions about what is essential and delete the irrelevant information.
- Organization– to be able to keep track of information or materials
- Time Management– to estimate how much time one has and stay within time limits and deadlines
- Goal-Directed Persistence– to have a goal and follow through to the end and resist distractions along the way
- Flexibility– to revise plans despite setbacks or obstacles or to adapt to changing situations.
- Metacognition– think about your thinking and to be able to look at yourself and how you problem solve. To ask yourself: “How am I doing?” “What do I need to do differently?”
It is essential to keep in mind that these skills begin to develop from infancy. They are natural like our ability to learn language. This is promising when it comes to helping our struggling students because we can teach these critical skills to help them succeed in life.
Reading and Executive Functioning
Typically, when we teach a child to read we focus on phonics, fluency, and comprehension, however, there are executive skills that one must have in order to be a successful reader.
According to Kate Kelly and Dr. Carlson[iii]executive function skills play a big part in different aspects of reading. Kelly and Carlson highlight the areas of executive function (EF) that play a role in reading. The areas that are bold faced are the skills I’ve taken from Dawson and Guare’s sub-skill list. Here are five areas it can affect.
- Letter Recognition (e.g. P, R)
EF – skills – attention, persistence, metacognition, working memory)
EF Skills – Working Memory, Goal Directed Persistence,
Metacognition, Attention, Planning and Prioritization.
- Words with Multiple Meanings
EF Skills- Flexible Thinking, Metacognition
- Passive Voice
EF Skills- Metacognition, Working Memory
EF Skill- Metacognition, Attention, Goal Directed Persistence,
As you can see, there is a lot more going on than phonics, fluency and comprehension strategies. These executive function skills greatly supportthe “reading skills” that are taught in school.
When it comes to executive function, there are three things to keep in mind. First, there are many kids with dyslexia who have strong executive function skills. Second, executive function skills play a vital role in how ALL kids learn. And third, the possibility of teaching executive function skills can help drive success.
Can Executive Function Skills be Taught?
A resounding YES!
I see both my children and students like distinctive, intriguing, and thought provoking “jig-saw puzzles.” No two puzzles are the same. Some puzzles are easy to start with and then pose a few challenges along the way. Others are a bit tricky to start, and once I see the how the pieces fit, there is success. However, there are other “jig-saw puzzles” that are trickier; they may have more pieces, and sometimes I feel like I am missing a piece. I believe that some of these missing “pieces” are executive skills.
Judy Willis, a neurologist and classroom teacher, reports that brain imaging confirms that executive functioning skills are found in the frontal lobe of the brain, and brain-compatible strategies that target these areas will benefit ALL students. [iv] Willis goes on to say that even high-achieving students do not have equal strengths in all of the areas, and at times will use their superior intelligence or creativity to make adaptations to compensate for a deficit in one or more of these areas. (We can see this with the dyslexic population where they find the most innovative ways to compensate!)
We sometimes forget and assume that our children naturally possess these skills. At times, I assume with my own kids that they should know how to orchestrate all of these executive skills. But then I remind myself, “I would never get mad or discipline my student for not knowing how to read, spell, write or know their math facts. Instead, I would find ways to teach them and help guide them to a path of success.” Therefore, when we observe a child melting down, acting impulsive, losing materials, procrastinating, or daydreaming, we need to shift our thinking and consider that these are areas this child needs to learn. Just like learning sounds in the alphabet, we need to learn how to be organized, resist lashing out, or plan ahead. If we change our mindset and recognize that teaching our children these critical skills is just as important as teaching reading, writing, math, there will be more learning taking place rather than frustration, sadness, and avoidance. Additionally, these skills will help not only with academics, but also with their family and social life.
* * * *
Life is like a “living classroom.” Whether you are a parent or a teacher, you are continually learning, growing and evolving. To help our children, we must be self-aware, revise and adjust our approach to help them flourish. (This involves some executive skills!) Awareness and understanding on how to improve your child’s executive function skills will help guide them on the road to success …and you might learn a thing or two about yourself as well! I sure have!
For more detailed information on Executive Function Skills and how to help struggling learners, please join us for our webinar in late July. This webinar will:
- Elaborate on the above sub-skills with real-life examples
- Provide some possible reasons why there is an increase of Executive Function Deficits
- Provide tools to help with each sub-skill to use both at home and in the classroom.
- Provide a roadmap of how to incorporate these tools into home and school without feeling overwhelmed.
[i]Dawson, P., & Guare, R. (2009). Smart but scattered: The revolutionary “executive skills” approach to helping kids reach their potential. New York: Guilford Press.
[ii]Wilson D., & Conyers, M. (2016) Teaching students to drive their brains – Metacognitive activities and strategies. Virginia: ASCD.
[iii]Five Ways Executive Functioning Issues can Impact Reading. (n.d) Retrieved from: https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/executive-functioning-issues/5-ways-executive-functioning-issues-can-impact-reading
[iv]Willis, Judy., (2007). Brain friendly strategies for the inclusion classroom- insights from a neurologist and classroom teacher.Virginia: ASCD.
OGOA Blog writer, Marcy McIver has a Bachelor of Education in Special Education and a MSc in Brain Based Learning. She has been teaching for 15 years and has spent the last three years providing remedial intervention to children with dyslexia. She is passionate about helping students with various learning differences and how to better support this population using cognitive neuroscience to maximize motivation and learning.