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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 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.” 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.”

ianusPrior 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.”

Kyle JonesIf 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.”

Photos courtesy of Ianus, Kyle Jones and RahulG.


1 Judi Piggott { 08.30.08 at 1:12 am }

Yet another ‘two-letter’ way to diagnose and rank kids, I was thinking (probably not using my executive function to do so). Even started to get a bit riled up as I read: Why is it so important for kids to adapt to school, rather than the other way ’round…. BUT then the lightbulb went on.

This is actually SUPPORT for the critical experiential ways that children – that all of us – learn real world skills and how to manage themselves with others. Play, role-playing, all very important stuff. Especially in an increasingly freelance world of learning and earning.

And to think I am making a presentation to a faculty meeting next week to get them to support Community Service-Learning for their undergrad students.

Thanks for giving me a way to ‘sneak up on’ them, from an unexpected angle! Ah, the serendipitous results of casually following links from blog to blog…

2 Stavros Tripakis { 09.10.08 at 1:26 am }

This article appears to be moving in the direction I’d like education to move to. Still, I find it sad that we’ve come to the point where we need “expert advice” and “20 years” of research to tell us things that should be common sense: that play is extremely important to the intellectual development of our children; that concentration is extremely important to learning, even more so than just being smart. I wonder how many more years of “serious research” will it take us to “show” other common sense approaches to improve our classrooms, like: making them less boring for the kids, encouraging them to participate and ask questions, making them unafraid of trial and error.

3 Shirley King { 01.07.09 at 9:51 am }

I have a daughter that is a college freshmen, she does not suffer from attention deficiet disorder, most of her educational career has been very successful, however she now attends the University of Pennsylvania, and I think the new enviornment, the work load and the demands of the school have overwhelmend her, can you suggest a way I can get her involved in executive function training while still at this university, or any other suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

4 N M Green, Resource Specialist { 01.15.09 at 5:28 pm }

Response to Shirley King: First thing your daughter needs to do is to utilize a planner: she needs to keep track of every appointment, assignment, test, upcoming project. Second, she needs to plan and take
seriously time to eat, rest, socialize and put that time in the planner. The planner can be her guide and director through the maze of her new environment. She should also carry with her, in her planner, all the instructors names, numbers, room numbers, map of school. She
needs to begin listing and preparing for papers, months in advance, by doing bibliographies on assigned topics. She needs a working computer, a cell phone and an internet line so that she can touch base with you when she needs to vent.

She can visit the Dean’s office, or go see a counselor which is a very good move for a Freshwoman in a new college. Most important is to take time and be very careful who she pals around with so that she is not distracted even more. She should keep her eye on the best students, and try to join a study group of serious students.

With a cell phone she can punch in all her instructors numbers, and yours. She will be only a phone call away from you when she gets overwhelmed. She needs to self-advocate; drop a course that she finds impossible to fulfill – add an enjoyable course. Listen to students: who are the best teachers? Who to avoid?

Of course she may already be doing this: but the planner is MOST important.

5 Toni { 04.10.09 at 6:21 pm }

I recommend a book called No Mind Left Behind – Understanding Executive Functions by Adam Cox. It clearly outlines 8 skills like attention, planning, emotional control etc. etc. and more important, what to do to help your students stay on track. A very child-centered, practical book that helps a lot.

6 D MinerHazel { 04.03.10 at 2:51 am }

I am excited to now that my lifelong challenge has been studied and can be helped! But right now I must help my 15 yr old grandson whose Mom passed and was his executive organizer. He has Auditory Processing Disorder & Above Aver Intell…downfall is in doing written work in timely fashion & remembering to bring things to school and/or to hand in work! HELP New school wants to drop him from Sp Ed & just say he is not doing his part!

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