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Should we “teach” executive functions or “teach about” executive functions?

In an article published in Education Week on March 1, education therapist Lexi Peterson says about executive functions:

“If we treated these thinking skills as an essential part of the curriculum, each student would have a better understanding of themselves and how they retain, analyze, and struggle with learning new material. When teachers help students pinpoint the roadblock in their executive functioning, students have the opportunity to use specific strategies to progress, thus, decreasing the negative self-talk that accompanies struggles.”

We find it very encouraging to see more discussion of the critical role of executive functions in learning.  At the same time, discussions like this point out some gaps in understanding and implementing programs to support students in developing these essential skills.

Executive functions are an essential part of the curriculum, whether or not they are treated that way. They are skills that students use to learn to read, to do math, to follow instructions, to do everything they do in school or in everyday life.

One gap in Peterson’s discussion is confining consideration of “these thinking skills” to executive functions, rather than the full range of cognitive skills involved in learning. Executive functions are a special category of cognitive skills, but there are others that can represent stumbling blocks in the learning process just as executive functions can.

Another gap in the discussion is whether the goal should be to teach students about executive functions or to actually help them develop (teach them) executive functions. Or both.

When students have been through a cognitive assessment and actually know how strong their executive functions and other cognitive skills are, then, as Peterson points out, they can pinpoint the reasons for roadblocks in learning, and use the strategies that are best suited to their particular cognitive strengths and weaknesses. Empowering students with this understanding and the skills to use the appropriate strategies is … well… powerful.

But even more powerful is helping students develop stronger cognitive skills.  Working memory, inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility – the three core executive functions – can be developed. In some cases, and perhaps in many cases, they can be strengthened to the degree that workarounds and strategies are not needed or reliance on them can be greatly reduced.

In schools where helping students understand their cognitive strengths and weaknesses AND helping them strengthen their cognitive skills through comprehensive, integrated cognitive training are part of the curriculum, students have experienced remarkable growth in academic performance, engagement, self-confidence, and even performance in sports. Remember that these skills are reflected not just in behavior, not just in positive or negative self-talk, not just in grades, but in everything students do.

So our answer to the question should we “teach” executive functions or “teach about” executive functions is that we need to teach (help students develop) executive functions AND other cognitive skills, and that it should be an intentional and indispensable element of the curriculum.

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