A middle school girl laments, “I really can’t make decisions. It’s very hard for me to make up my mind.” A ninth grader asks his teacher, “Can I start over?” as he erases all of his work. “I messed up on this problem.” A young adolescent boy explains, “I look at the amount of work I have and I feel overwhelmed. I just don’t know how to get started.”
These statements are common among adolescents with executive functioning difficulties. Executive functioning (EF) refers to the cognitive processes that are necessary to think, manage the self, evaluate and solve problems, and achieve goals (1). Adolescents with executive functioning difficulties often have trouble initiating, completing, or turning in their class assignments; they may struggle to stay engaged in lessons or classroom tasks. At times, these students may be labeled as ‘lazy,’ ‘forgetful,’ or ‘lost’ (2).
When the concept of executive functioning was first examined in the 1970s, it referred to the front of the brain acting as the control center or the “executive” (3) of the brain. Originally, executive functioning was defined as a concept that related closely to selective attention, or the ability to focus on one thing while blocking out distractions. In the past two decades, this notion has evolved. We now think of EF as consisting of numerous cognitive functions that are needed to assist with learning and self-regulation (3). The current research on executive functioning is summarized below.
Executive Functioning: the Control Center for the Brain
Executive functioning affects basic processes such as focus, emotional self-control, organization, task completion, time management, and attention. Some researchers have compared EF to “the air traffic control system” of the brain where this control system manages numerous different planes landing and taking off, just as the brain manages and controls certain thoughts, behaviors, and actions (1). Others have related the concept to the ways in which children become the “CEOs of their own learning” (4).
Currently, we think of executive functioning as consisting of three main components:
1. Working memory
2. Mental flexibility
3. Self-control / Inhibition
Working memory refers to holding and manipulating information in mind in order to complete a task, such as when doing mental arithmetic. Mental flexibility refers to thinking about an idea in multiple ways, and being able to adjust behavior depending on the present circumstances and context. Self-control involves the ability to ignore a distraction or stop an impulsive behavior (5).
Academic Achievement and Executive Functioning Skills
It is important to remember that executive functioning is not the same as intelligence. Many adolescents with high intelligence struggle with executive functioning issues. While intelligence is related to acquiring knowledge, executive functioning refers to the ability to apply this knowledge effectively and efficiently in order to achieve a goal (6). There is evidence that suggests that students with poor EF skills perform worse in school than students with strong EF skills (7).
For example, when assigned a long-term project, an adolescent with EF difficulties will have trouble creating a time line to complete the project one component at a time. Another student might not know how to regroup after doing poorly on a test or getting stuck on a difficult problem. Yet another student might be unable to control her frustration and start yelling at her peers while working on a group project.
Studies also indicate that there is an association between EF and achievement in reading and math. Reading and math are complex skills that utilize several executive functioning skills, such as working memory, planning and organization, and self-monitoring (8). Studies have shown that when children were taught to use more executive functioning strategies when completing math or reading assignments, their academic performance improved (8).
Teaching adolescents how to utilize their executive functioning skillset can improve their academic performance, enhance their relationships with adults and peers, and help them put their natural talents to use.
Strategies for Building Executive Functioning Skills
There are numerous strategies that can help adolescents gain stronger EF skills:
1. Help the child express what he already knows
Gretchen Timmel, a Licensed Educational Psychologist in Massachusetts, emphasizes the importance of problem solving for adolescents with EF difficulties. When an adolescent complains about not knowing how to begin solving a homework problem, Timmel suggests: “Have the student describe what they do know. What is the one thing that they can tell you about the problem that is in front of them? Then you can help facilitate the planning process from that moment on.”
2. Help the child prioritize tasks
When working on a large project, help the child lay out the steps that are necessary to accomplish a goal. By creating an order that she can follow, the student will be less likely to get overwhelmed by the task at hand.
Another method of prioritization is to have the student write in a personal journal, which helps to foster self-reflection (9). This way, the student can reflect on her own thoughts, feelings, and decisions throughout the planning process.
3. Help the child focus on the planning process
Sometimes, it can be helpful to begin by “planning backwards” in order to achieve a goal (9). A helpful planning strategy is the “Get Ready, Do, Done” model by Russell Barkley, which helps an adolescent plan what materials or ideas he needs, decide how much time each step will take, and envision what the final goal will look like through a picture or a drawing (10).
4. Help the child become a team player
Numerous activities assist adolescents with building self-regulation and socialization skills, such as engaging in sports, music, theater, or other group activities. Participating in competitive sports helps strengthen attention and the ability to make quick decisions while monitoring another teammates’ actions. A theater performance requires actors to remember their lines and the timing of choreography, which enhances working memory and attention (9).
It is important to remember that executive functioning continues to mature during adolescence and does not become fully developed until the age of 25 (7). As children grow and their needs change, adults can help them foster and use their executive functioning skills in order to support them in achieving developmental milestones.
(1) Executive Function & Self-Regulation. Retrieved from http://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/executive-function/
(2) Packer, L. (2017). Overview of Executive Dysfunction. Retrieved from http://www.schoolbehavior.com/disorders/executive-dysfunction/overview-of-executive-dysfunction/
(3) Garon, N., Bryson, S. E., & Smith, I. M. (2008). Executive function in preschoolers: A review using an integrative framework. Psychological Bulletin, 134(1), 31-60.
(4) Branstetter, R. (2013). The everything parent’s guide to children with executive functioning disorder: strategies to help your child achieve the time management skills, focus, and organization needed to succeed in school and life. Avon, MA: Adams Media.
(5) Guare, R., Dawson, P., & Guare, C. (2013). Smart but scattered teens: the “executive skills” program for helping teens reach their potential. New York: Guilford Press.
(6) Zelazo, P.D., Blair, C.B., and Willoughby, M.T. (2016). Executive Function: Implications for Education (NCER 2017-2000) Washington, DC: National Center for Education Research, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. This report is available on the Institute website at http://ies.ed.gov/
(7) Does Executive Function Interventions Boost Student Achievement? Retrieved from http://www.aera.net/Newsroom/News-Releases-and-Statements/Study-Little-Evidence-That-Executive-Function-Interventions-Boost-Student-Achievement
(8) Best, J. R., Miller, P. H., & Naglieri, J. A. (2011, August 21). Relations between Executive Function and Academic Achievement from Ages 5 to 17 in a Large, Representative National Sample. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3155246/
(9) Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2014). Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence. Retrieved from http://46y5eh11fhgw3ve3ytpwxt9r.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Activities-for-Adolescents.pdf
(10) Barkley, R.A. (2012). Executive Functions: What They Are, How They Work, and Why They Evolved. New York: Guilford.
This article was prepared with the invaluable help of Jolie Straus, a second year graduate student at Tufts University’s Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development. Jolie desires to improve the lives of individuals affected by autism spectrum disorder and other neurodevelopmental and psychological challenges. In her future endeavors, she plans to work as a clinical psychologist and assist children and families through assessment, consultation, and treatment. In addition, we want to thank Gretchen Timmel, a Licensed Educational Psychologist in Massachusetts, for her wisdom on executive functioning advice and strategies.