What exactly are Executive Functioning Skills?

In this blog post, I explore the main executive functioning skills, try to clear up some misconceptions and provide tips on how to be more brain-friendly.

Executive Functioning Skills (let’s call them EFS from now) have been a topic of conversation for a while now. Unfortunately, there have been unhelpful simplifications, such as: “EFS are the conductor of the brain’s orchestra!” Or, an even better one: “EFS are useful if you’re a CEO. EFS are all about being a CEO!”

These kinds of oversimplifications should go and sit in the naughty corner. Right now. There isn’t a singular magical part in our brain that orchestrates everything we do.

Things get even more complicated due to the rise in popularity in exploring executive functioning. The issue here is that - similar to other psychological concepts - there isn’t one common definition for Executive Functioning. These definitions vary wildly which makes it difficult to really compare research studies and draw firm conclusions (Müller & Kerns, 2015). This article therefore focusses on a specific set of skills.

Selecting EF Skills

So, which EFS shall I choose? In their book Smart but Scattered Peg Dawson and Richard Guare define the following 11 skills (Dawson & Guare, 2009):

  • Response inhibition
  • Working memory
  • Emotional control
  • Sustained attention
  • Task initiation
  • Planning/prioritisation
  • Organisation
  • Time management
  • Goal-directed persistence
  • Flexibility
  • Metacognition

These are the skills that we can see our students using in the classroom. Further work done in the field by McCloskey highlights a distinction between our Executive Functioning System (EF) and our EFS (McCloskey, 2016). The EF is the supervisory system: it receives sensory input, scans the environment for context on “when” to use EFS. Engagement of this system is visible with an fMRI in the prefrontal cortex. The Skills are the workers. These workers, the skills, are in different areas of the brain. Why is this distinction important? It explains why we can teach a skill (e.g. planning or organisation skills) but we don’t see this reflected in a student’s daily approach to school work. Knowing how to do something is different to knowing when to do it.

The executive functioning system takes years to mature. For some arbitrary reason we’ve decided that 18 is when someone is an adult. The prefrontal cortex, on average, doesn’t reach maturity until it’s 25 or 26! This means that we’re asking our students to do things they’re not ready for, nor can they be expected to be ready for. 18 is commonly chosen as an age where individuals can self-manage, but that’s not the same as saying that they’re mature.

There are age-appropriate expectations for these skills. We can teach students how to plan, organise and stay focussed at an age-appropriate level. But it explains why students can struggle with independent work, reflecting on their learning, planning their studies, etc. Even when we know they can do it. But they don’t know yet how or when to best use this skill. This is something we have to model and teach, and allow time for their brain to mature.

If you can’t reflect on your learning or plan your homework, does that mean you have an executive functioning difficulty? Not so fast, the brain is our most complex organ, integrated into the larger nervous system. Signals pass through many different areas before the prefrontal cortex gets involved. For example, stress and anxiety (and many other emotions) influence brain chemistry. This means that the prefrontal cortex won’t engage if a person is stressed or anxious (fight-flight-freeze response). It’s important to consider executive functioning difficulties from a holistic point of view to see what the underlying issue could be.

So what does this mean in the classroom?

First of all, it’s important to consider than none of our students have fully formed prefrontal cortices. It’s normal to dedicate teaching-and-learning time within your subject lessons to these skills. In Senior, the older students get, the more we expect them to do all these complicated brain tasks. Thinking back to the context matter raised earlier, we need to be explicit about when to use certain skills, since students won’t always know which skill to use when. Weaving these eleven skills into our curriculum will ensure it becomes common language. In your next Phase or Subject Meeting, give it some thought and see how you can make this more explicit - it’ll help everyone!

References

Dawson, P., & Guare, R. (2009). Smart but scattered: The revolutionary "executive skills" approach to helping kids reach their potential. Guilford Press.
McCloskey, G. (2016). McCloskey Executive Functions Scale (MEFS).
Müller, U., & Kerns, K. (2015). The Development of Executive Function. In R. M. Lerner (Ed.), Handbook of child psychology and developmental science (Seventh edition, Vol. 4, pp. 571–623). Wiley.