Executive Functions Help Children Succeed

Executive Functions help children succeed academically and in life. They may even be a better predictor of success than IQ.

If you look at what predicts how well children will do later in school, more and more evidence is showing that executive functions — working memory and inhibition — actually predict success better than IQ tests. – Adele Diamond

Executive Functions are important in every aspect of life:

  • success in school and in the workplace
  • making and keeping friends
  • marital harmony
  • avoiding things like unplanned pregnancy, substance abuse, or driving fatalities

What are the Executive Functions?

Executive Functions are in charge of the brain. They plan how resources will be used, what the priorities are, what direction to take in the long term, and what to do when there is conflict. The executive functions take into account the big picture and keep the future in mind.

Executive Functions can be categorised into behaviour-based skills and cognitive-based skills.

Doing Skills – behaviour-based:

  • Response inhibition
  • Emotional control
  • Sustained attention
  • Task initiation
  • Flexibility
  • Goal-directed persistence

Thinking Skills – cognitive-based:

  • Planning
  • Organisation
  • Time management
  • Working memory
  • Metacognition

Breakdown of the Executive Functions

Response Inhibition (RI)

Response inhibition is the capacity to think before acting. When children have weaknesses in RI, they:

  • Act without thinking
  • Interrupt others
  • Blurt out answers
  • Talk too loudly
  • Act inappropriately

Emotional Control (EC)

Emotional control is the ability to manage emotions in order to achieve goals and complete tasks. When children have weaknesses in EC, they:

  • Over/under react
  • Are easily overwhelmed
  • Have low frustration tolerance

Flexibility

Flexibility is the ability to adapt to changing conditions. Children with weaknesses in flexibility:

  • Are upset by changes
  • Have difficulty transitioning between activities
  • Have difficulty developing multiple solutions

Working Memory (WM)

Working memory is the ability to hold and manipulate information in memory when performing complex tasks. Children with WM weaknesses:

  • Forget directions
  • Get lost in a problem
  • Works ineffectively

Task Initiation (TI)

Task initiation is the ability to begin tasks in a timely manner. When children have weaknesses in TI, they:

  • Put off doing the work
  • Hand in assignments late
  • Are disruptive in class

Sustained Attention (SA)

Sustained attention is the capacity to maintain focus in spite of distractions, tiredness and/or boredom. SA weakness include:

  • Not being able to do the work
  • Being unable to complete multiple assignments at once

Planning

Planning is the ability to create a roadmap to reach a goal or complete a task. When children have planning weaknesses:

  • Work does not get done
  • Parts of assignments are completed out of order
  • They miss steps to the assignment

Organisation

Organisation is the ability to create and maintain a system to keep track of information. Weakness in this area include:

  • Being unable to find necessary materials for a task
  • Having messy books

Time Management (TM)

Time management is the ability to handle their time effectively. Weaknesses in TM include:

  • Wasting time in class
  • Being late for class
  • Poor estimate of time
  • Failing to meet deadlines

Goal-Directed Persistence (GDP)

Goal-directed persistence is the capacity to follow through to the completion of a goal. GDP weaknesses include:

  • Failure to meet goals
  • Tendency to quit easily
  • Frequently changing plans

Metacognition

Metacognition is the ability to monitor, and be reflective about one’s own thinking. Metacognition weaknesses include:

  • Making the same mistakes over and over
  • Lacking insight
  • Poor problem- solving skills

Executive Functions in the Brain

The executive functions are controlled by the pre-frontal cortex which is one of the last parts of the brain to become fully mature. Neuroscientists agree that brain development continues up until the mid to late 20s. Even though the pre-frontal cortex develops late, we can still help children build their executive functions from as early as their pre-school years.

Executive Function controlled by Pre-frontal cortex

Image Source: cienciasecognicao.org

What Happens When a Child has Weak Executive Functions?

What does it look like when children have weak executive functions? Children with poor executive functioning:

  • act without thinking
  • interrupt others
  • give up easily
  • are overwhelmed by large assignments
  • talk too loudly
  • have difficulty adapting
  • do not notice impact of their behaviour on others
  • have trouble calming down
  • have difficulty transitioning between activities
  • cannot problem solve
  • possess low frustration tolerance
  • cannot follow classroom routine
Problems with Executive Functions

Image Source: Understood

Helping Children Develop their Executive Functions

When it comes to development executive functions, the earlier we start, the better it is for our children. What can we do to improve our children’s executive functions?

  • Build executive functions directly – train them, challenge them, and practice, practice, practice!
  • Improve conditions that impair executive functions – e.g. stress and lack of sleep are bad for executive functioning. Any activities that improve these conditions can help – e.g. meditation and exercise reduce stress and improve sleep.
  • Reduce the demands on executive functions by scaffolding

What is Scaffolding?

Scaffolding is breaking up the learning into chunks and then providing a tool, or structure, with each chunk. When scaffolding reading, for example, you might preview the text and discuss key vocabulary, or chunk the text and read and discuss as you go. With differentiation, you may give a child an entirely different piece of text to read, you might shorten the text or alter it, and you may modify the writing assignment that follows.

Activities and Programs that Improve Executive Functioning

  • Physical activity (especially aerobic exercise) that include character development and cognitive engagement:
    • traditional martial arts that emphasise self-control, discipline, and character development
    • exercise plus mindfulness, e.g. yoga
    • exercise that requires thought, e.g. soccer
  • Computerised training with a mentoring component
  • Certain school curricula – e.g. Tools of the Mind, Montessori
  • Games – board games, card games, imaginary play.

Martial Arts

It is worth mentioning that modern martial arts, which focuses on martial arts as a competitive sports, was associated with more juvenile delinquency and aggressiveness, and decreased self-esteem and social ability (in a study of adolescent juvenile delinquents). On the other hand, traditional martial arts, emphasising qualities such as repect, humility, responsibility, perseverence, honour, and physical conditioning, helped reduce aggression and anxiety and improve social ability and self-esteem.

Computerised Training

In a study on the effects of computerised training (using a program called CogMed®) on executive function, de Jong found that it was the mentoring that seemed to account for the benefits more than the computerised training.

To my knowledge, CogMed is not available in Malaysia. Currently, the only brain training program I know of which offers one-to-one mentoring is the BrainRx program from myBrainLab.

School Curricula

Features of Tools of the Mind and the Montessori Method which improve Executive Functions:

  • challenges children to improve; challenge executive functions
  • scaffolding, never embarrasses
  • hands on learning makes possible:
    • giving each child individual attention – Listen
    • dynamic assessment – carefully Observe
    • individual pacing; individualized instruction
  • make it clear they expect each child will succeed
  • foster community & consideration for others
  • have children teaching & helping one another
  • no external rewards
  • joyful – less stress – more relaxed
  • strong emphasis on oral language

Might also be worth looking into:

I think that we should be focusing on helping children get better at these skills early. I’m hesitant to use the word teach, because when you say teach, people have this image of children sitting like little college students in their seats with somebody lecturing at them. – Adele Diamond

Helping children to develop their executive functions should involve everyday activities in school and at home in playful and fun ways. Games are always a great way to make anything fun.

  • Imaginary play
  • Story telling
  • Songs with movements
  • Playground activities
  • Organised sports
  • Board games – battleship, chess, checkers, Dungeons and Dragons.
  • Card games – concentration, old maid, go fish, happy families.
  • Party games – musical statues, musical chairs, Simon says, hide and seek.

Helping Children at Home

Response Inhibition:

  • Use the ‘stop and think’ sign or any other predecided gesture before answering questions
  • Give them think time after calling them and come back to them for their response
  • Minimise distraction of windows
  • Keep stationary to the bare minimum

Executive Functions - Tools

Flexibility and Transitioning:

  • Clearly segregate different topics
  • Give ample time and signal for transition to a new topic. Be clear when moving to another topic.
  • Pause between information so as to allow your child to digest the information, then store it and get prepared to receive new information.
  • Change seating to signal transition
  • Practise keeping books away and taking new ones out to start something new

Sustained Attention:

  • Make your time with them more interesting and challenging
  • Allow frequent breaks
  • Rotate subjects
  • A good pace with frequent checks
  • Active participation and not you talking all the time
  • Check on them regularly
  • Teach your children to ‘self talk’

Goal-Directed Persistence:

  • Check for understanding, don’t assume they know
  • Specifically outline all the steps and emphasise each step
  • Number the steps and write it out for them
  • Have them practise the activity with you before you leave them to finish the task
  • Just because they started on the right task don’t assume that they will continue to the end

Strategies for Planning:

  • Use visual timing strategies
  • Use mobile technology
  • Use graphic organizers

More Resources:

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