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Executive Functioning: Unlocking Student Potential

One of the biggest questions parents and educators face is how to unlock the full potential of each and every child in our care. Current debate about vouchers and charter schools and public versus private schools actually distracts from the bottom line: if we don't figure out how to help students put their innate potential into practice, it won't matter what kind of school they are in. As most of us know from our own experience, there is nothing more frustrating, nothing more discouraging, than to face a challenge and not have the skills needed to meet it. To fulfill our true potential in life we must all, at some point, learn how to effectively apply ourselves. We must learn to persevere, to organize our thoughts, to formulate plans and figure out how to execute on them. Without these capacities, much latent potential within us will inevitably remain untapped throughout our lives.

Fortunately, we have never understood more about the important life skills that allow us to accomplish things, both great and small. In psychology, these abilities are collectively referred to as our executive functions. Ten years ago, not many parents had even heard of the term executive functioning. Today it is not uncommon for parents to express concern specifically about their child’s executive skills, while an increasing number of researchers warn that deficits in executive functioning lead to difficulties not just in childhood and adolescence, but up through college and beyond (1, 2).

For more on Executive Functioning check out the first episode of our brand new LifeWorks Podcast!

​Even though most people by now have heard of executive functioning, the reality is few possess a comprehensive understanding of it. And far fewer still understand how to effectively support its healthy development. ​This is not surprising given the complex nature of the adolescent brain. After all, when a child struggles with executive functioning, what most people see are problematic behaviors. It is much harder to see the root causes of those behaviors, for to truly understand where these behaviors come from inevitably requires a certain amount of education. One of the truly tragic results of a lack of such an understanding is that it all too often leads us to misinterpret academic performance issues as character flaws, mislabel struggling students as lazy, disengaged, or even rebellious. When we mistake developmental challenges for character deficits we not only end up burdening students with inaccurate negative self-images, but we also end up going down the wrong path in terms of interventions. By clarifying exactly what executive functioning is and articulating how best to support its healthy development, we hope to empower both parents and educators to help students thrive inside and outside the classroom and, ultimately, to help children fulfill their full potential as individuals. The Benefits of a Fuller Understanding Throughout this series, we will be taking a detailed look at ten subskills that, together, comprise executive functioning. As you will see, simply being aware of these various subskills will go a long way toward explaining many otherwise inexplicable performance issues. For example, instead of seeing your child as lazy, you will be more likely to realize she is struggling with the ability to initiate, the subskill related to starting new projects and generating new ideas. Instead of assuming your child is simply spacing out in class and not paying attention, you may instead suspect that he is have trouble with his working memory, the subskill related to holding several concepts in mind at the same time. These more psychologically accurate framings not only help depersonalize potentially painful situations, but also highlight the fact that executive skills are learnable. Children who suffer from deficits in executive functioning are not doomed to a lifetime of struggle. On the contrary, with some diligent effort and informed guidance, children can dramatically strengthen these capacities and thereby improve performance. For parents and educators, it is important to develop a fuller understanding of executive functioning because it helps us employ more targeted interventions. Simply insisting that struggling students “do their homework” only goes so far when legitimate developmental deficits stand in the way. On the other hand, helping students cultivate specific underdeveloped executive skills not only leads to meaningful long-term improvement in performance but is also far more empowering for the student. The Anatomy of Executive Functioning Executive functioning is not, as many believe, a singular phenomenon but rather a set of distinct subskills that can be divided into three categories: Behavioral, Emotional, and Cognitive. These three categories mirror three stages of human development that unfold more or less sequentially. Early on, for example, as the socialization process begins, children must learn to inhibit basic impulsive behaviors like grabbing toys away from other children or talking out of turn in school. These are examples of what is called Behavioral Regulation. As children grow older, they must learn to regulate not just their behavior, but their emotions as well. They must figure out how to express feelings “in constructive rather than impulsive or hurtful ways.” (3) When we admonish children to “use their words,” we are challenging them to exercise Emotional Regulation. Finally, when children enter adolescence, they must go beyond both behavioral and emotional regulation and engage in more complex cognitive activities such as learning how to plan out long term assignments, maintaining higher levels of organization, generating original ideas, and seeing difficult projects through to completion. These are all examples of Cognitive Regulation. As you will see, the construct of executive functioning provides a comprehensive framework for understanding human behavior, one that transcends the temptation of judging people as either inherently lazy or motivated, attentive or distractible, good or bad. In our subsequent pieces we will be discussing the most effective means for supporting the healthy development of these crucial life skills. And in the process, we hope to empower both parents and educators in helping adolescents live up to their highest potential. In our next installment, join us as we begin our exploration of the foundation of all executive functioning: Behavioral Regulation.

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