Improving Academic Achievement – Executive Function Could Hold the Secret
One relatively new topic for educators should have many elementary school teachers rethinking their basic classroom approach, especially those who work with children in the earliest grades.
The concept, dubbed executive function by experts, has actually been around for the better part of 20 years. However, the topic did not really hit mainstream America until Wray Herbert’s in depth look at the concept this summer at Newsweek.com.
MindDisorders.com defines the term executive function as the “set of cognitive abilities that control and regulate other abilities and behaviors.” What makes the concept so intriguing for researchers, and potentially significant for educators, is that “executive functions are necessary for goal-directed behavior.”
MindDisorders.com further notes: Executive functions “include the ability to initiate and stop actions, to monitor and change behavior as needed, and to plan future behavior when faced with novel tasks and situations.” Therefore, “executive functions allow us to anticipate outcomes and adapt to changing situations” while providing us the specific “ability to form concepts and think abstractly.”
EF Could Replace IQ
In his Newsweek piece, Herbert does a great job explaining the importance of executive function, dubbed EF. The writer clearly articulates “why the ability to resist distraction … may be more important to academic success than traditional measures of intelligence.”
Prior to explaining the meaning of EF, Herbert takes a look at a specific group of students that simply do not have either the organizational skills or the attention spans needed to handle school related activities.
“Most people can recall a kid from grade school who couldn’t stay seated, who talked out of turn and fidgeted constantly, whose backpack overflowed with crumpled handouts and who always had to ask other kids what the homework assignment was. Those kids weren’t bad kids, but they seemed to have absolutely no self-control, no internal disciplinarian to put a brake on their impulses, to keep their attention focused.
“Not surprisingly, they were almost always lousy students as well. This kind of student has been tagged with a variety of labels over the years: antisocial personality, conduct disorder, stupid.”
What makes the concept noteworthy is “that a child’s ability to inhibit distracting thoughts and stay focused may be a fundamental cognitive skill, one that plays a big part in academic success from preschool on. Indeed, this and closely related skills may be more important than traditional IQ in predicting a child’s school performance.”
If executive function is a cognitive skill, then the concept could one day “displace traditional measures of ability and achievement” in the school setting.
Pumping Up a Child’s EF
One of the most interesting aspects of the article is the notion that “we can pump up these EF skills with regular exercise, just as we do with muscles.” But in stark contrast to the traditional notion of drill and kill, improving executive function utilizes a completely different style curriculum.
According to Herbert, “dramatic role playing is a cornerstone of the EF philosophy.’ The writer provides the following summary of a group of students working on the development of their executive function skills.
“The preschoolers, all four and five years old, actually design the play’s action by themselves. For example: “Let’s pretend you’re the mommy and I’m the baby. I’ll get sick, and you’ll need to take me to the doctor.” Then they act it out, solving problems along the way.
“The idea is that play of this kind promotes the internalization of rules and expectations and demands mental discipline to stay in character—all cognitive challenges. Importantly, these exercises are not tacked on as a separate teaching, but rather are integrated into every activity of the child’s day, from reading to math.”
In addition to dramatic play, the EF curriculum offers clapping games and interactive sequences that use concrete visual cues to help children understand expectations. While some will insist that these steps should be unnecessary within the school setting, the idea is very consistent with other recent published materials. In fact, those who have spent time reading articles noting the importance of play in helping children develop intellectually will immediately see consistencies with the EF curriculum.
Of course, the most important aspect of this ability to pump up EF is the contradiction to more traditional views, especially those related to IQ. Many experts see a child’s IQ score as fixed, that intellect is fundamentally innate. The concept of executive function clearly contradicts that notion.
Enormous Potential for Education
As for the importance of the concept, experts note that it contrasts with the current push in the school setting for more academics at an earlier age.
Under NCLB, schools have cut play and recess time to devote more time to reading, writing and arithmetic.
Herbert’s final summary details why EF may in fact be the new IQ:
“Executive skills are disproportionately worse in children from deprived economic circumstances, and these skills may account for up to half of the gap in school readiness between white kids and African-American kids.
“These are precisely the kids whom the 2001 No Child Left Behind federal education reforms were supposed to help, but under that law, play has been marginalized as a luxury at best and at worst as an impediment to basic skills training and test scores. These results argue that by neglecting basic brain function we may be leaving our kids behind in a much more destructive way—and depriving them of playfulness in the process.”