What role do executive function skills play in learning, and how can we better support mental flexibility in the classroom?
What is Executive function?
Executive Function (EF) consists of a number of different processes that help individuals to manage everyday life. The Harvard Center for the Developing Child likens EF to the body's 'air traffic control' system, where we plan, organise and manage ourselves.
Another way of looking at Executive Functioning is to compare it with a conductor and orchestra. The conductor of the orchestra or the air traffic controller organise and manage the musicians or the aeroplanes.
They both have a future goal: for the musicians to play the piece of music or for the aeroplanes to take off or land at a particular time and on a particular runway. The idea of Executive Functioning relates to carrying out a task where simply replying on intuition or gut instinct is not enough. Executive Function skills are needed when you have to concentrate and pay attention.
There is no one agreed definition of EF, but there is agreement about the three core areas that make up EF. These are working memory, self-regulation and cognitive flexibility. Working memory is about being able to hold information your head and manipulate that information.
Working memory is a key factor in academic attainments: ‘Critically, we find that working memory at the start of formal education is a more powerful predictor of subsequent academic success than IQ.’ (Alloway and Alloway, 2010).
What is cognitive flexibility?
Cognitive flexibility involves being able to adjust what you do, find another way to solve a problem or look at a problem. Seeing something from another's perspective involves cognitive flexibility. Thinking outside the box is another example. Cognitive flexibility involves using cognitive skills in order to reason and solve problems.
Executive function includes several different types of cognitive functions, including attention, memory, planning, organization, decision-making, self-control, and emotional regulation. These functions allow us to think logically and creatively while solving problems.
Why is self-regulation so important?
Self-regulation involves controlling your attention, behaviour, and thoughts. It is also sometimes referred to as inhibitory control. Can you press the override button or put the brakes on? Resisting temptation, delaying gratification.
The infamous Marshmallow test is a well-known experiment in Psychology that looked at self-regulation in children. It was carried out in 1972 at Stamford University with nursery-aged children. A child was put in room with a favourite treat (a marshmallow).
The child was told if they waited 15 minutes without eating the treat they could have a second treat. The researchers found that children who could wait for longer (so could delay gratification) had better outcomes in later life.
Later studies found more subtle differences, where the socio-economic status of the child was a factor. Self-regulation is a pre-requisite for cognitive flexibility since the individual has to attend to the task or problem and inhibit impulsive trial and error responding. Similarly, working memory would be challenged if the individual jumped in with an ill-thought-out response.
Promoting executive function development
It is important to think about EF as a set of skills. It is not a single concept such as the notion of g or general ability. However, there is some correlation between fluid intelligence and EF because fluid intelligence and EF involve similar abilities and processes: deductive and inductive reasoning, analogies and abstract relationships.
When we think about Executive Functions skills, it isn't helpful to try to separate out each skills, because Executive Functioning involves integrating a number of related skills.
In addition to the three core agreed areas, some researchers have suggested a wider range of skills and behaviours involved in EF. For example, Dawson and Guare have produced a Taxonomy of EF where 11 areas are suggested.
EF is sometimes divided into two: 'hot' and 'cold' EF. Hot EFs are where there is high emotional content, so inhibiting emotional control is important. Emotional control isn't about expecting the child or young person to 'out a lid on' their emotions.
Rather emotional control is having ways of understanding and managing emotions so that the individual can cope with everyday life and its challenges. So small setbacks don't lead to big emotions that are out of proportion to the event that triggered them.
Cold EFs are where there is no emotional factor, such as planning and thinking. Tasks that involve cool EF are considered to be decontextualized and thus more emotionally neutral.
There is a neurological element to EF. It was initially thought that only the frontal lobes of the brain were the main neurological location of EF. However, this view has now changed and developed as our understanding of brain structure and function has developed.
The frontal lobes are involved in EF, but in conjunction with other areas of the brain. Current thinking is that EF involves interconnecting areas of the brain, so there isn’t one localised area. EF involves the prefrontal cortex, cerebellum, basal ganglia and thalamus as well as the frontal lobes.
What role does executive function play in school life?
EF is important because it involves the integration of a range of skills and behaviours that help the individual cope with everyday life. We all need to set goals, organise ourselves and think ahead. Our lives are likely to be pretty chaotic if we always behaved in an impulsive way.
In relation to schooling, curriculum access can be facilitated by sound EF. For example, the child or young person approaches learning in an organised and systematic way and can inhibit their responses on order to maintain attention to a task and see it through to the end.
There is evidence that young children develop and use Executive Function skills and the ability to inhibit at age 4 is correlated with later attainment outcomes. A growing research base has documented the important relationship between EF and young children’s early academic outcomes.
Executive function and self-regulation
Self-regulation is just one of the processes involved in EF. However, it is singled out here for further consideration because poor self-regulation is likely to affect other elements of EF. The Education Endowment Foundation Guidance Report about metacognition and self-regulation comments:
'Essentially, self-regulation is about the extent to which learners......are aware of their strengths and weaknesses and the strategies they use to learn. It describes how they can motivate themselves to engage in learning and develop strategies to enhance their learning and to improve. It will look different for learners of different ages, and for different tasks, but teachers will recognise these characteristics in their most effective learners.' (Education Endowment Foundation, page 8).
As noted above, poor self-regulation can affect working memory, and WM is a key factor in academic attainment. Difficulties with self-regulation, or inhibitory control, can also be related to attentional control, where the learner's impulsivity affects their ability to focus on a task or to maintain task focus long enough to see the task through to completion.
Implications for teaching and learning
The three core EF areas are all important for teaching and learning. As noted earlier, working memory is a key predictor of future academic attainment. Poor self-regulation leads to impulsive trial-and-error approaches to learning, where the learner's response might be rapid and not well thought out.
Cognitive flexibility helps learners to find other ways of solving problems.....rather than repeating previously unsuccessful attempts.
There is no a condition called 'Executive Function disorder' with a set of diagnostic criteria. It is more likely that educators and parents notice the absence of EF, where the learner presents with some or all of the following:
- Poor memory
- Can’t seem to put the brakes on
- Poor task focus
However, it is also important to rule out other underlying difficulties especially ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) or DLD (developmental language disorder), that might account for the difficulties that the learner is presenting with.
In addition, some neurodiverse conditions such as an autistic spectrum condition are associated with EF difficulties.
EF can be a helpful 'lens' to help reframe some of the challenges that learners experience. For example, in the area of SEMH difficulties, a pupil acts in what might seem to be in an inconsequential manner and who does things to annoy others might be experiencing EF difficulties which means that they find it hard to put the brakes on. EF difficulties might be the reason why some learners need constant nagging and reminders to organise themselves.
There is not one approach or intervention that will 'fix' EF. Executive Function skills are complex and interrelated, so it can be difficult to single out specific elements. Wave 1 Universal Quality First Teaching is a useful means of supporting EF on a day-to-day basis. The following bullet points suggest what an EF-friendly classroom might involve:
- Open-ended questions
- A focus on how as well as what (process as well as content)
- Learning objectives are not just written on the board but are discussed explicitly, making links to previous learning
- Step-by-step instructions
- Explicit organisational strategies
- Encourage reflection and taking time (self-regulation)
Dr Jane Yeomans is an independent Educational Psychologist based in the West Midlands. She offers a wide range of face-to-face and online training for teachers, teaching assistants and psychologists, including courses and workshops about Executive Function and cognitive thinking skills.