Cultivating a School Culture that Promotes Executive Functioning

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools across the country struggle to move their brick-and-mortar classrooms to remote online learning environments. While empowering students to take the lead in their education is the vision and mission of school districts, the abrupt move to distance learning has placed a heavy burden on our students.

“What is being asked of our children today in terms of executive functioning is way more complicated than it used to be, and their brains are not more ready,” said Courtney Wittner, M.Ed., director at Hayutin & Associates, during a recent edLeader Panel.

Wittner, along with Renaud Boisjoly, CEO of Studyo, identified and provided valuable strategies for supporting students as they navigate these unprecedented and challenging times with executive functioning skills.

Executive function overview

Executive functions, or EFs, are considered “higher-order” brain functions that can initiate, break down, and follow through on multi-step tasks. Executive function skills help our brains prioritize tasks, filter distractions, and control impulses.

The three core EFs are inhibitory control, such as self-control, discipline, and attention control; working memory, which includes mentally relating one idea or fact to another and reordering the sequence of items; and cognitive flexibility thinking outside the box. A 2007 study found that executive functions are more critical for school readiness than IQ or entry-level reading or math.

Executive function enablers and deficits

Three main factors that impact students’ likelihood of developing executive function skills at school are positive relationships with adults, experiences that foster social connections, and safe, nurturing environments that promote creativity, exploration, and exercise.

If nurtured in young children, the executive functions will allow students to act in a goal-directed manner.

Students with low executive functioning are considered lazy, unmotivated, and apathetic. Teachers and adults can support all students, including students with low executive functioning, by modeling and providing explicit instruction on strategies and skills such as calendar and time management, an environmental organization, self-advocacy, goal-directed behavior, attentiveness, motivation task management, processing speed, informational recall and memory, and study skills.

Fostering a culture that promotes executive functioning

Supporting and developing critical executive function skills involves the entire school community. Steps to encourage a school culture that promotes executive functioning includes analyzing current systems, assessing physical or social learning environments, and providing teacher training and executive function professional development opportunities.

Educators need to teach executive function skills during the school day and model planning and study skills to generalize these skills and take agency and ownership of these skills themselves.

As students enter upper elementary and middle school, the focus on executive function strategies declines, so students show up to high school and don’t know how to take notes or study.

The presenters recommend teaching executive function skills and strategies at an early age. This can decrease anxiety and result in overall competence as a learner to ensure success in college and beyond.

Originally Published: eSchoolNews

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