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The Executive Function and School Performance: A 21st Century Challenge

Executive Function - School PerfromanceMike’s performance has been unpredictable all year! He is so bright and creative and his teachers report that he participates in classes. However, homework is a daily battle that I dread. Mike’s teachers recently told me that he is often late with papers and projects and that he is lazy. (Parent of a 5th grader)

Academic success in our 21st century schools is increasingly linked with children’s mastery of a wide range of skills that rely on their use of executive function strategies. The crucial role of executive function processes begins in the preschool years and increases as students progress through middle and high school when they are expected to master complex skills that involve summarizing, note-taking and writing. Success depends on students’ ability to plan, organize and prioritize tasks, materials, and information, separate main ideas from details, think flexibly, memorize content and monitor their progress. It is important to help children to understand how they think and learn, and to teach them to use strategies in five major executive function areas:

executive-function-brain-imageThe Impact of Executive Function Weaknesses on Academic PerformanceWhen I have to write a paper, I try to write but I can’t figure how to get my mind unstuck. I get so frustrated when I have written only a few sentences after an hour so I give up. (John, 7th grade)

When students like John need to coordinate the skills required for tasks such as writing or completing long-term projects, they often become “stuck,” the information gets “clogged,” and they struggle to produce.

This model* of a “clogged funnel” (Meltzer, 2007, 2010) best explains the challenges faced by students with executive function weaknesses who often:

  • struggle with open-ended tasks (e.g., organizing their calendars) because they are unable to prioritize and organize the various steps;
  • have difficulty shifting between different aspects of the task (e.g., switching from outlining to writing, from one academic subject to another, or from calculating a math fact to checking the answer);
  • over-focus on the details, ignoring the bigger picture;
  • struggle to take notes or to outline because they lose track of the main ideas;
  • have difficulty checking their work without structure or guidance;
  • forget to hand in completed work.

Students who cannot “unclog the funnel” may have difficulty showing what they know. Their grades often do not reflect their ability and, in spite of their effort, they may be labeled as “lazy.” As they enter middle and high school, where the demands for independence and efficiency increase, they often become frustrated, lose self-confidence, and, as a result, make less effort in school.

Executive Function Strategies: An OverviewMy success is due to the strategies I learned and the confidence and self-understanding I gained after I used the strategies and got higher grades. (Sarah, 11th grader)

Executive function strategies provide an important foundation for improving students’ academic performance, confidence and effort. Students like Sarah who use strategies develop a deeper understanding of their unique strengths and weaknesses and begin to see improved grades. Encourage your child or teen to use strategies and, in doing so, keep the following principles in mind:

  • Don’t assume that your child already knows how to use a strategy.
  • Children and teens need to learn when to use which strategies and in what contexts. Not all strategies work for everyone all the time.
  • You know your child! Help your child to personalize the strategies that work best so that these techniques become more meaningful.
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