I have often written about learning strategies, and how important it is to help students become “strategic” in their approach to learning, and I discussed some ways that teachers can promote student learning by both teaching and reinforcing the use of effective strategies to their students and by imbedding effective teaching strategies into their classroom instruction. What was missing from that discussion was any real focus on the kinds of “thinking” students need to do when they are confronted with different types of learning challenges and opportunities. These “thinking ingredients” fall under the umbrella term “executive functioning.”
A Working Definition of “Executive Functioning”
“Executive functioning” is a term used to describe the many different cognitive processes that individuals use to control their behavior and to get ready to respond to different situations. Whether the task at hand is to read a newspaper article, write an email to a friend, have a telephone conversation with a relative or join in a soccer game at the park, executive functioning is at work behind the scenes, helping to accomplish the desired goal. In other words, executive functioning:
- Is conscious, purposeful and thoughtful.
- Involves activating, orchestrating, monitoring, evaluating and adapting different strategies to accomplish different tasks.
- Includes an understanding of how people tap their knowledge and skills and how they stay motivated to accomplish their goals.
- Requires the ability to analyze situations, plan and take action, focus and maintain attention and adjust actions as needed to get the job done.
We All Have It and We All Do It
Sometimes these processes seem to happen in a seamless and automatic way, and at other times they seem to not happen quickly enough (or not at all), resulting in what some people refer to as “getting stuck,” not knowing what went wrong and having a hard time discerning what to do next. At its best, executive functioning allows us to be mentally and behaviorally flexible to all sorts of task demands, to adjust our thinking to accomplish our goal (even when there are changing conditions along the way) and to adapt our reflexes and responses in ways that result in coherence and smoothness of responses.
How does someone know if their executive functioning abilities are well tuned and ready for action? A few indicators might be if you:
- Make good use of past knowledge and experience (both before you start an activity and while it is ongoing)
- Take notice of the current situation for cues about what is expected of you and how you might best proceed doing the task at hand
- Think about what you are doing (or are about to start doing), imagine what if any implications it has for you in the future, and allow yourself to feel whether this activity has any personal values or relevance to you (taking your emotional temperature really does matter because it often has a very real impact on how you think!)
- Feel you are ready and can be flexible in changing your thinking along the way if need be
- Can delay gratification (not jump to conclusions too quickly) and inhibit any impulsive responses that might take you off track or distract you from your goal
- Are able to adjust the way you think and respond when the rules change unexpectedly.