What are executive function skills and how do they impact learning?

Are you interested in understanding the impact executive function skills have on student learning? Take a moment to read our blog article that explains the eight critical executive function skills.

Student who needs executive function skills

Have you ever wondered why some students, despite everyone’s best efforts, never seem to “get” it? While frustrating, this scenario (and countless others like it) can be explained by a deficit in a series of mental skills known as executive functions, or EFs. Often described as the “management system of the brain,” executive function skills are a series of cognitive processes that our brains perform every day to learn, work, and manage the daily complexities of life. In a very broad sense, executive functions are those advanced elements of cognition that allow students to stop and think before rushing to answer a test question, arrive at a solution, or simply respond appropriately to a statement or question from the teacher. These executive function skills allow students to initiate tasks, plan, prioritize, organize, self-monitor, and think flexibly, all while inhibiting their impulses and controlling their emotions. Executive functioning allows us to carry out some of the most critical, everyday tasks, which is why they are so important to learning.

Students who have problems with their executive function skills may often seem unmotivated, lazy, and day-dreamy. This is only the tip of the iceberg. While this is what may appear on the outside, underneath tells a completely different story. These are typically your “outside the box” learners, and they need some outside the box solutions that are tailored to their unique needs. Because of this, it is imperative that teachers understand how a student’s executive function skills can impact his/her performance, as it is likely that a deficit in any one of these areas can cause a student to struggle, let alone a deficit in more than one area.

Because each child is unique and each student learns differently, executive function deficits are bound to manifest themselves differently as well. Most researchers agree, however, that there are eight core executive function skills, and a deficit in even just one area can have alarming consequences for students and teachers alike.

  1. Working Memory. This is the capacity to hold information in mind for the purpose of completing a task. Essentially, it acts as a placeholder (much like a sticky note for the brain) so that the brain can work with the information to make connections. During this metacognitive process, short-term memory provides information to working memory. Working memory then “massages” it as it (hopefully) moves it into long-term memory, which then becomes part of a student’s overall learning schema. Even the most common classroom assignments — writing an essay, solving a complex math problem, or finding the main idea — can overtask and stress a student who has a working memory issue. These tasks — and others like them — require quite a bit of cognitive effort. If these cognitive demands are too great, the teacher runs the risk of overwhelming the student.
  2. Initiation. Also referred to as task initiation, this executive function skill involves a student’s ability to initiate and independently start a task or activity. In addition, this skill allows students to independently generate ideas, responses, or problem-solving strategies. Initiation can be difficult to cultivate in students because it requires several other executive functions to work in tandem with it. It does not take a great stretch of the imagination to see how initiation deficits impact student achievement because after all, it is hard to finish something which is never started. This inability to complete tasks results in a downward spiral, leading students into a fixed mindset which is the opposite of our goal which is instilling a growth mindset. (Carol Dweck, a pioneer in understanding the importance of a growth mindset, has a great TedTalk that is worth the time investment to watch.) In addition to lower academic achievement, students who are caught in this spiral often experience low self-esteem and are not motivated to learn. Task initiation can be especially problematic for students with ASD and ADHD.
  3. Planning and Prioritizing. Planning and prioritizing are essential life skills because they help a person identify and focus not only what needs to be accomplished, but the order in which the tasks should be done. Both skills require students to manage current and future-oriented task demands. No matter their age or ability level, deciding on the steps necessary to complete a process, and then thinking through that process, can be an incredibly difficult task. Students who have difficulty planning and prioritizing ultimately experience problems with other executive functions, such as organizing, sequencing, and time management.
  4. Organization. Organization involves the ability to gather stimuli in the environment so that order can be imposed, and tasks can be completed quickly and more effectively. When students lack this important metacognitive executive function, they are more distracted and report higher rates of stress. Why? Because the lack of an overall plan causes them anxiety and the more anxious students are, the more academic challenges they are likely to experience, leading to lower grades and negative interactions with their teachers.
  5. Self-Monitoring. As its name suggests, self-monitoring requires students to monitor their own performance and measure it against some standard of what is needed or expected. As they review their progress toward a goal, they begin to extrapolate what the outcome might be which allows them to redirect their efforts, as needed. Not surprisingly, all other executive function skills are dependent on a student’s ability to self-monitor what s/he is doing in real time. When successful, students frequently check in with themselves to gauge their performance. This process allows them to make any necessary adjustments so that efficient and effective outputs are maintained. Conversely, students who lack this executive function skill are more likely to stay on the original track, leading them to become sidelined when a problem surfaces.
  6. Inhibition/Impulse Control. This is the ability to inhibit or control impulsive (or automatic) responses by using attention and reasoning. Inhibitory control blocks behaviors and stops inappropriate automatic reactions. The flip side of inhibition is impulsivity; students who have this weakness have trouble stopping themselves from acting on their impulses. In students with inhibition deficits, their social-emotional style can largely be summed up as “reactive,” as they are often left without the necessary social and emotional skills to function properly and effectively in society. In fact, these students are most likely to “shoot first and ask questions later,” leading to high emotions not only with their teachers, but with their peers and friends as well. Mindfulness and social-emotional learning are critical to executive function skills and help educate the whole student.
  7. Shift. Change can be difficult for anyone, and it can be especially difficult for students who have deficits with this executive function. Also known as cognitive flexibility, shift is the ability to think flexibly so that one can respond appropriately to any given situation. Being able to think flexibly involves creativity, which in turn allows students to see problems from multiple angles. In doing so, students can shift their focus and adapt their response from one situation to the next as they work to discover creative solutions. Flexible thinking also involves being able to adapt to new situations and manage change. Students with shift deficits struggle to cope with change and are unable to think creatively, causing their academic and social-emotional success to plummet.
  8. Emotional Control. People often have misconceptions about emotions and executive function, and with good reason. Executive function is often perceived as being “matters of the mind” while emotions are regarded as “matters of the heart.” The truth is that it is not that simple because the two are so inextricably intertwined. Students’ ability to engage their metacognitive executive functions is directly related to how they feel and how intensely they feel it. When their emotions run so high that they become “intense,” it causes the brain to become dysregulated, which means that their executive functions can no longer work at full capacity. For students whose emotional control is more severely compromised, the negative impact on their academic performance and social-emotional well-being is more profound.

Teachers are not alone in their struggle with students’ executive function skills. Parents often struggle to teach their children executive function skills appropriate for home life such as following instructions to perform a chore, losing track of belongings, and being ready on time in the morning. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has put together a list of executive function interventions that are helpful for parents that you may wish to share.

Are you curious? Want to learn more?

To learn more about the impact of executive function skills and how to use focused interventions to support students in developing their executive function skills, visit the Professional Development Institute (PDI) website or view the syllabus for our course Focused Interventions to Improve Executive Function Skills. PDI has been offering quality online professional development courses for over 25 years and has trained more than 275,000 K-12 educators across the globe. We specialize in offering quality, affordable university-approved online courses that focus on the most relevant topics in education while providing practical strategies that can be implemented in the classroom immediately. All PDI courses are at the graduate-level, instructor-led, and are conducted entirely online. University credit is available through University of California Division of Extended Studies. PDI offers an extensive catalog of online courses for teachers on topics that are the most critical in today’s classrooms.

Categories: executive function skills, teaching strategies

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