YCDS Wellness Initiative: Executive Functioning

This month, Elizabeth Trump, YCDS’ coordinator of Student Mental Health and Wellness, answers a few questions about executive functioning:  

Q:  What exactly is executive functioning?

Executive functioning defined very simply is the “command center” of the brain.  Managed by the frontal lobe of the brain, executive functioning includes all the skills involved in goal-directed behavior.  This includes planning and organizing, paying attention, initiating tasks and working on them to completion, flexible decision-making and problem-solving, self-regulation and self-awareness and monitoring progress.

I believe that all students want to learn and want to do well in school.  Wanting to do well in school, even believing that you can, does not magically result in attained knowledge or a stellar GPA.  We are talking about executive functioning skills so that students and parents have the understanding of what is required to make the goals of doing well in school a reality.   

Further, I think it is invaluable for us to foster the development of these skills in our students so they may have lifelong success as learners and problem-solvers.

Resource for parents:

There areas of executive functioning

Can we psychologically immunize kids from mental illness? 

Can someone’s executive functioning skills improve or is this skill set fixed?

Thank you for asking this.  It is perhaps the most important question we can discuss today.  The short answer is yes, absolutely these skills can be developed.  Dr. Carol Dweck has pioneered our understanding of just how important it is that we believe in our ability to develop skills, talents, understanding, and even intelligence.  Dr. Dweck describes two types of mindsets- growth-mindset and fixed-mindset. A person with a growth mindset essentially believes that abilities can be developed. When this belief is combined with productive and worthwhile effort, research indicates that a person with a growth mindset is able to achieve more ambitious goals than a person with a fixed mindset.  In contrast, a person with a fixed mindset essentially believes a person either “has it or doesn’t” and thus has less motivation to work hard to overcome challenges in pursuit of his or her goals.

Accepting that a student has the ability to develop executive functioning skills, combined with specific practice of these skills, are important steps in supporting a students academic success.  

Resource for parents and teachers on growth mindset found here

How can improving executive functioning improve one’s overall day-to-day?

Overall, the improvement of executive functioning results in more productive effort.

Let’s imagine a student, with few executive functioning skills, sitting down to tackle his homework for the evening.  He may sit down with his backpack and spend some time remembering the work he has to do for the evening. He may then search through his backpack to locate the work, setting it all out in front of him.  Let’s say review for a Spanish test tomorrow, math review problems, and reading for English. He selects one assignment to begin, the math review problems. He may get stuck on one problem, extending the time on this assignment.  He may then choose to read his English assignment but is unable to grasp fully what he is reading because he is also texting with friends intermittently and listening to music. This extends the time spent on reading, and does not result in full comprehension.   Because his first two assignments have taken longer than expected, he has less time than he needs to study for Spanish before leaving for an extracurricular activity and then returning to bed time.

Let’s compare this with a student, who has no greater intelligence, but has been more intentional about organizing, planning and prioritizing.  This student has written down the work that must be completed today and may have even planned to begin studying for the Spanish test before this evening.  He has his work and backpack organized, so when he sits down to complete his work he does not have to spend time remembering or locating his work to complete.  He prioritizes the work to be completed, beginning with studying for his test. He has a set amount of time to be spent on math review problems, perhaps 20-30 minutes.  Having a set amount of time allows his brain to focus and better attend to the work. When the time is complete, he accepts the work as the best he can do for the moment and moves on to his English reading.  This student would be aware that our attention is not able to sustain multiple focuses and will limit distractions, silencing phone alerts and turning off music, for the time that is required to read the English text.  

A student who has learned how to plan and prioritize homework is able to work more efficiently.  The same amount of work can be accomplished in less time, when attention is focused on one task rather than divided in an attempt to “multi-task.”  Improved executive functioning skills allows a person to “work smarter” so that greater effort has a greater impact.

Q: What do you think is the most commonly identified challenge within the executive function framework?

This varies with age.  Attention span grows as children do.  Two areas that are most common to address are planning, organization, and time management are the areas that many continue to work on for years.  


Help teen develop good study habits: 

Help middle school student learn organization

Time management skills

Executive Functioning Skills