Learning How to Learn: Teaching Executive Function

Character traits such as grit, resilience and self-control are enjoying a renaissance in public and private schools as educators look at noncognitive skills that may help prepare students to become successful lifelong learners. Despite its clunky name, “executive function” (EF) is one of the hottest phrases among educators.

“Executive function is about the how of learning,” says Surina Basho, Ph.D. “Typically you hear about the content. But how do you learn that content?”

Basho is director of research in learning differences at Morrissey-Compton Educational Center in Redwood City, California, and co-author of a chapter with Lynn Meltzer in the book, “Promoting Executive Function in the Classroom.”

“We need to integrate executive function and teaching. Teachers think these are innate skills, but you can teach these skills.” — Surina Basho

Examples of executive function

EF definitions tend to be a bit messy. (See the extended list of its components, according to Basho and Meltzer.) Executive function is an umbrella term, with multiple components or cognitive processes that come together to regulate our “thoughts, emotions and behavior in pursuit of a goal or task, particularly in a new or challenging situation,” says Basho. All of these complex processes happen in the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that slowly continues to develop into the early- or mid-20s.

Basho, who is currently based in Silicon Valley, and was previously in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has seen a lot of students in high-pressure academic situations failing to thrive. Students with poor EF skills combined with other learning issues will have a particularly hard time.

“Students are expected to do more work than they used to. They are expected to learn more complicated concepts at a younger age. For example, they learn to research, but there’s not enough time to learn the skills, not enough scaffolding,” she says.

Transitional years tend to have a new crop of students suddenly struggling: third grade, sixth grade, ninth grade and freshman year of college each have leaps of EF expectations.

Many students do well academically throughout elementary schools, because their teacher has laid out every step of what to do next. A single teacher oversees homework, integrating it into classroom-based learning. Then in sixth grade, students have projects due for different teachers. For those students who have never considered what steps are necessary for a complex project, let alone several in different disciplines, it can all be overwhelming.

Similarly, there’s less external structure provided in high school, and even less in college. Ironically, colleges tend to have the best resources for students who make it there without enough EF skills. But instead of waiting until college, schools can begin as early as kindergarten.

“Forward-thinking schools are getting onto the bandwagon,” says Basho.

Explicit instruction in EF can help students understand their own learning processes better, and integrate the skills into their lives both in and out of school. When it’s time to, say, study for a history test, the student has a sense of how to make a plan that includes evaluating and budgeting time, organizing notes, and monitoring their progress.

Multitasking is more important in some professions than others. For example, an airport traffic control officer has to monitor different inputs and outputs at once, relying on various parts of the brain for evaluation and feedback. Strong EF skills enable the controller to stay focused, even under stress. Stress itself can limit children’s EF development in the first place.

“If you’re stressed or depressed, our basic systems are overwhelmed. You can’t access the frontal lobe as well. You shut down,” says Basho. “Students who are very anxious or who experience depression do not have good EF skills.”

6 areas of executive function

At a recent conference on executive function and learning, Basho facilitated an entire panel discussion on the meaning of the term. She points out that definitions vary, especially between related fields with their own jargon, such as cognitive science.

  1. Working memory:

Several studies have shown that executive function skills are a better predictor than IQ for school readiness. In primary school, working memory is one of the big skills that crucially affects a child’s reading development and comprehension, as well as the ability to write. “If you can’t remember what you had in your brain, it’s a nightmare to write a paragraph, essay or thesis,” says Basho.

Short-term memory is when you take in a few small pieces of information and reproduce it, whereas working memory requires taking it in, holding it and working with it to understand a concept before releasing it.

  1. Cognitive flexibility:

Our daily lives require us to constantly shift from one activity to the next. “Cognitive flexibility has to do with how mentally and behaviorally flexible you are,” says Basho. “If you cannot achieve something one way, can you change your approach? Can you shift from one task to the next?”

  1. Planning:

Being able to break things down into multiple steps enables you to plan well, by working backwards to figure out the ideal order and timing of each action or event.

  1. Organization:

One major component of organization for young students is physical, such as putting notebooks and other belongings in routine places. Somewhat less obvious is how incoming information is organized. Those who aren’t skilled in this area don’t know how to integrate a new concept if they don’t understand where it fits into the overall structure. When they go to retrieve that information later on, they don’t have it.

  1. Prioritizing:

“Are you able to pick out what should come first, or what’s most important?” Basho points out that prioritizing is closely linked to organization. “If the professor is not making clear what the big picture is, they don’t get anything. It’s all just details.”

  1. Self-Monitoring:

Metacognition is a foundation for EF: “Do you understand yourself and how you learn?” Realistic assessment of one’s own strengths and weaknesses is itself an indicator of good EF skills. “Some kids are not accurate. The way their brains are working, they are not picking up on the same cues as someone whose executive function is good,” says Basho.

How to improve executive functioning

Teaching learning strategies that work for each child is a complex process that needs to be systematic. Basho recommends teachers start small, focusing on a single component of EF at a time:

  • Start with pieces, and then try to integrate it. You can adjust the strategy — that’s the flexibility piece — or choose a different one.
  • Give students time in class for self-reflection. Prompt them to ask questions like, “What worked for me and what didn’t?”
  • Get buy-in from the top. Schools that see the most impact have principals engaged in teaching EF throughout the year.

“We need to integrate executive function and teaching. Teachers think these are innate skills, but you can teach these skills,” she says.

Rebecca L. Weber is a journalist who covers education, the arts, the environment, and more for the New York Times, CNN, USA Today, and other publications. Visit her online at www.rebeccalweber.com or on Twitter @rebeccalweber.