Executive Function

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Honing the skills that keep us running smoothly

by Lisa Lawmaster Hess

It’s a rainy Monday. You cross the parking lot and linger for a moment under the roof of the patio outside the front door of your school building, shaking the rain off your umbrella before going inside. In the lobby, a substitute teacher — one you don’t recognize — stands outside the office looking lost. Puzzled by her location, you say good morning and reach for the knob on the office door.

Then you see it. The empty desk. Brenda, the school secretary (whose official title is administrative assistant to the principal) isn’t at her desk. There’s no coffee, a sure sign that Brenda isn’t simply in the restroom or doing one of the other million things she does every day.

Brenda’s not here.

Suddenly, the sub in the hallway makes sense. Worse yet, you fear that a lost sub is only the first of many snafus sure to arise today.

While the principal, teachers, and staff are all quite capable, Brenda is the one who keeps things running smoothly. Able to answer the phone while simultaneously unjamming the copy machine and silencing a squirmy second-grader with a mere glance, she keeps disaster at bay on a daily basis.

A day without Brenda is a day without organization. Oh, sure, the building will stay open, kids will learn, they’ll even get fed … but it won’t be the same. When the front office isn’t smoothly coordinated, as it always is under Brenda’s watch, everything’s just a little off-kilter.

Our executive functions are a lot like Brenda. A set of skills that keeps us organized, focused, and able to shift from one task to another, executive functions enable us to problem-solve and reach our goals. They keep us running smoothly, just as Brenda keeps the school running smoothly.

The degree to which our students master these skills varies widely. For most students, these skills improve with age, but experience also plays a role. Children who’ve been exposed to a high degree of inescapable stress (toxic stress) tend to have less well-developed executive-function skills, as do children with disorders such as ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder. The prefrontal cortex, the last of the brain structures to fully mature, is not only home to these skills, but works in concert with the rest of the brain to put them to use. The fact that the prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed until young adulthood explains, in part, the impulsivity and invincibility so evident in adolescents. It also explains why older children, though still impulsive to an extent, are less likely than younger children to act before they think.

Precise definitions of executive function vary. Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child identifies three core executive-function skills: working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control.

Working memory, also known as short-term memory, is both active and dynamic, allowing us to temporarily store information and manipulate it, as well. The details of this manipulation — what we do with incoming information and how we organize it — make all the difference in how well we can retrieve the information later. Rehearsal strategies, such as repeating the information, writing it down, or connecting it to things we already know, can ensure that we encode the information, moving it from working memory to long-term memory. In a sense, we “rent” the information that we keep in working memory; we don’t actually “own” it until we move it to long-term memory in an organized fashion that allows us to retrieve it later.

Mental flexibility, also known as cognitive flexibility, is the executive function that allows us to shift smoothly from one task to another. When toddlers have to put their toys away to take a nap or our students have to shift from classwork to recess and back again, they rely on mental flexibility to make that happen. In addition, cognitive flexibility plays a role in divergent thinking, making it a key component in creativity and problem-solving. Kids (and adults) with well-developed cognitive flexibility are able to come up with new solutions and new ways of doing things.

The final component, self-control, enables us to govern not just our physical behavior, but our thoughts as well. The better our self-control, the better we are at choosing what we need to do over what we want to do. Behavioral inhibition, the ability to suppress behaviors, is part of self-control. When students fight the urge to talk to their friends during class or walk away instead of punching a classmate who made them angry, they are exhibiting behavioral inhibition. Focus, the mental equivalent of behavioral inhibition, allows us to shut out irrelevant information and interfering thoughts in order to concentrate. Psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman, author of the book Focus, has dubbed focus “the hidden driver of excellence.”

While brain development lays the foundation for executive function, the use of strategies also plays a role in its development. Researcher Ann Masten has noted that parents with well-developed executive function skills tend to impart these skills to their children, suggesting that modeling and scaffolding can help to improve children’s facility in these areas. Because the brain is malleable, it’s susceptible to experience. For better or for worse, the pathways we pave through experience create the habits that govern the physiological development of our brain as well as its functions.

In a world where technology threatens to shrink attention spans, how do we help our students cultivate these skills? Fortunately, we already do many of the things that hone executive function. Teaching young children to make eye contact with the speaker helps them to focus their attention, increasing the chance that they will not only hear the information, but transfer it from working memory to long-term memory.

Asking students to repeat back directions or remember a series of steps helps them put memory skills to work, and teaching them to internalize that same repetition via self-talk provides them with a strategy they can use both in and out of the classroom. Similarly, teaching older kids how to take notes provides them with a skill that enhances memory and enables them to make written connections from one concept to another. This, too, helps them to accurately encode information for later retrieval.

As our students move through elementary school, we can shift from modeling and scaffolding skills of memory, attention, and focus to helping them zoom in on the strategies that work best for them. In doing this, we teach our students to think about how they think and how they work best, sharpening both executive function and metacognition.

When we ask students to show their work or explain the process they used, we engage executive function and help develop metacognition, as well. Students who process out loud may find that they need this verbal step before they can successfully commit their ideas to the page, an understanding that has repercussions for everything from doing multistep math problems to writing research papers.

When it comes to mental flexibility, we need to step out of the box ourselves in order to encourage students to do so. The way we’ve always done it might be comfortable, but it’s also the enemy of cognitive flexibility. Providing students with opportunities to brainstorm and including them in small decisions about daily life in the classroom encourages them to think more broadly and outside their usual parameters. Simple games such as challenging students to list as many saints as they can whose names begin with a vowel can lead children to worry less about looking for one right answer and instead help them focus on the many possibilities that exist.

Finally, when it comes to focus, we can borrow from some of these same strategies. Teaching students to answer the question “What should I be doing right now?” can help them to practice zooming in and zooming out when it comes to task management. Mindfulness practices can also assist us in focusing less on shutting out competing thoughts and more on managing them. Giving students five minutes after recess to close their eyes and focus on their breathing helps them not only calm down and transition, but also practice making one process primary and others secondary.

I can’t imagine a day when the Brendas of the world won’t remain essential, not just to our schools but also to our society. While this alone is reason enough for us to train more Brendas, we also need to make sure that we can function on our own. Executive functions form the foundation of our success, helping us to organize our thoughts, creatively solve problems, remember relevant information, and access all the parts of our brain. In addition, they develop the skills we need to achieve our goals and function as the CEOs of our own lives.

It’s a big job. Fortunately, our brains are up for the task.

Lisa Lawmaster Hess is an adjunct professor of psychology at York College of Pennsylvania and a former elementary-school counselor.

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