Executive functions don’t come in a box

I read an article today that offered a handful of strategies to develop students’ executive function skills. I see articles like this all the time these days, and I have a confession: they make me bonkers.  

While I’m thrilled to see more and more educators embracing the term executive functions, too often suggestions for teaching executive functions don’t reflect an understanding of what executive functions actually are. So they aren’t very helpful.    

To be sure, the term executive functions is a complicated one. It’s an umbrella term – a fancy way of saying a term that refers to a group of concepts that make up a category. Researchers don’t all agree on what goes into that category, so the term is still a bit of a moving target.  

Still, everyone agrees that brains have a handful of superpowers when it comes to getting things done.  With those superpowers, brains function much like an expert “air traffic controller.”  

Doing ANYTHING on purpose engages your air traffic controller – your cluster of executive functions. Talking, changing a tire, solving a math problem, listening to a lecture, reading for understanding, playing hopscotch, making a cup of coffee, using a strategy – for brains to do something with intention, they need to do a whole bunch of things:  

  • stop being on automatic pilot (inhibit
  • set a goal (plan)
  • sequence thought and/or behavior to achieve the goal (organize
  • hold the goal in mind while doing (working memory
  • keep track of how it’s going (self-monitor)
  • adjust on the spot in the event of a snag (be flexible
  • manage emotions (self-regulate

As your brain (and its air traffic control system) develops, it gets better and better at all of those processes. Because that’s what human brains are designed to do. (Thanks, mother nature!)

It takes about 25 years for brain cells to mature fully, and once they do, impulses move through neurons faster. In essence, nature greases the wheel to maximize the brain’s efficiency and effectiveness. Because students are in school for the bulk of those 25 years, it’s to be expected that biological forces are naturally bringing them closer to having tip-top brains the whole time.  (High five, biology!)  

If nature takes care of developing executive functions, why is everyone talking about teaching executive functions?  

Blue, Vivido stick figure with one hand on chin looking puzzled

Here’s where the complicated part comes in.  

Because brains don’t come pre-wired to do certain things that they have the capacity to learn to do, those things have to be taught and modeled. With teaching and practice, brain circuits form that pave the way for all sorts of complex and awesome abilities – like reading, writing, math, and making art.  

All school-based learning requires doing a lot of stuff on purpose – listening, talking, reading, writing, thinking critically, solving hard problems, and doing things other people ask you to do (and some that you don’t much feel like doing).  

School demands a LOT of “doing on purpose” – a LOT of executive functions.  

Unfortunately, biology goes wonky sometimes, so SOME kids have air traffic controllers with uneven skill sets – one or two (or sometimes all) of their executive functions lag in comparison to other kids the same age.  

They may have trouble overriding their automatic pilot and inhibiting, which can throw off their ability to plan

Or they may have a smaller working memory capacity. In an instant, they feel lost because their internal white board doesn’t hold as much information as everyone else’s does. Or the information fades like disappearing ink.  

Some students might have a glitch in self-regulation, so they get derailed in a flash by anger, anxiety or frustration. No one learns well when they are dysregulated.

Still others are naturally rigid in their thinking. Without the ability to see options easily, they have a hard time being flexible with problem solving.

Others really REALLY struggle when it comes to organizing. So knowing what to do first, working efficiently, and putting all the pieces together just right trips them up.  (Ugh… SO MANY students have trouble organizing, especially when it comes to talking and writing!)

We don’t expect a 2-year old to remember to stop and look both ways before crossing the street, but with age, teaching, and practice, they do it automatically. Because brains are still developing their executive functions through childhood, students of all ages need adult guidance to perform at their best and develop to the fullest potential.  

With modeling, lots of repetition, and gobs of feedback, teachers help students hone their air traffic controller skills and detect a whole host of patterns. Those patterns guide their listening and reading comprehension, structure how they share ideas out loud and in writing, tackle and solve problems effectively, and get things done.  

Behavior patterns – routines and habits – help everyone work efficiently.  

The path to proficiency is paved with patterns!  

(If you just noticed that pattern of alliteration, your pattern detector is working!)

Students with vulnerabilities in one, two, or all of the executive functions need help from the adults around them. In the early grades, they need teachers and parents to be their air traffic control supervisors – calling the shots, demonstrating how it’s done, and stepping in to take over the controls to prevent near collisions.  

As they get older, students need real-world practice with what I call SSSHs — Skills, Strategies, Systems, and Habits — the various ways to compensate for their air traffic controller’s shortcomings. Adults need to coach them in real time until those SSSHs become automatic.  

To develop executive functions, students must use their executive functions. (Hello, chicken and egg!)  

The ultimate goal is that they have automatic ways of compensating for the things their air traffic controller isn’t so naturally hot at – inhibiting, planning, organizing, remembering, and/or regulating  — so they can solve problems flexibly and manage the day-to-day demands of life in real time.  

For students to maximize the executive controls their brains are capable of, they need more than a handful of strategies. They need instruction and adult guidance that is responsive to their ability to handle the tasks and what they encounter in the various parts of their day. Inherent in that instruction must be a core set of proven skills, strategies, systems, and habits, as well as gobs of feedback that helps develop self-awareness and self-control. 

Educators need better tools than listicles and boxed curriculum to really make a difference for students whose executive functions lag behind their peers. 

We have some of those tools, and we’ve been training educators to use them for 20+ years.  

Become one of those educators hereHere, too!